Finding the Next Kyle Hendricks

Over 450 innings into his major-league career, Kyle Hendricks possesses both an ERA under 3.00 and a third-place finish in Cy Young voting. That’s impressive. Even after accounting for the regression he’s likely to experience in the future, he’s nevertheless proven himself to be an apt pitcher at the major-league level, something that we didn’t see coming as he ascended the ranks as a prospect. He’s done enough to wonder why we missed on him, and what he can teach us about other young pitchers out there.

First, let’s establish the simple fact that we missed on Hendricks. He was never ranked among Baseball America’s top 100, and he never rose above the Cubs’ 11th-best prospect in that publication. He was never considered an organizational top-10 prospect by Baseball Prospectus, who left him off their Cubs writeup completely going into the 2014 season. Some of this may have come from the shape and timing of his minor-league production: Hendricks took a leap forward in 2013, and then pitched enough in 2014 to lose his prospect eligibility. At FanGraphs, Marc Hulet ranked him as the Cubs’ 10th-best prospect after 2013. Kiley McDaniel had to treat him as a major-league growth asset the next year.

But the other part of our failure to anticipate Hendricks’ excellence comes from the nature of his skill set. Most writeups that regarded him as a prospect made reference to his mediocre stuff but strong command. That’s a tough sort of player to project.

In defense of our evaluation abilities, there are a few easy reasons that command-first prospects don’t always get a ton of love. For one, every bit of velocity is positively correlated with good outcomes, so teams do want velocity. Between two guys with equal command, you want the one throwing 95.

Command isn’t always equal, though, so why can’t we treat this as a new market inefficiency to exploit? For a number of reasons. One, it’s very difficult to put a number on command, especially since control is a confounding factor. Some players can throw generally into the zone — control — and avoid walks, giving the appearance of command. Other players can avoid the heart of the zone while also demonstrating the ability to put the ball where they want to put it — even if “where they want to put it” is outside the zone.

And, lastly, even if the tools available to us for “measuring” command may be improving, we’re talking about minor leaguers here. Minor leaguers throwing to minor-league umpires, more specifically. While we have the radar gun to help guide our appraisal of stuff, we can’t really use a directly measurable number to help guide our appraisal of command.

So we missed on Hendricks. And while we can maybe absolve ourselves of past transgressions because of the nature of measuring and seeing command, let’s try to find our next Hendricks by defining the last. Hendricks, coming out of a short stint in 2014, was a right-hander under the age of 25 who possessed some major-league experience, below-average fastball velocity, and worse-than-average strikeout and ground-ball numbers. Applying that set of criteria to 2016 produces a collection of 26 pitchers. Let’s now add in Baseball Prospectus’ new command numbers as the last category in order to filter out the guys with poor command.

Our first sweep gives us eight pitchers who could serve as comps.

Kyle Hendricks Comps in 2016
Name Age GS IP FBv K% GB% CSAA
Kyle Hendricks, 2014 24 13 80.1 87.9 14.6% 47.8% 0.25%
Zach Davies 23 28 163.1 89.3 19.8% 45.5% 3.51%
Braden Shipley 24 11 70.0 91.2 14.1% 42.8% 0.82%
Brady Rodgers 25 1 8.1 89.9 6.3% 24.3% 0.36%
Cody Ege 25 0 11.2 86.8 20.0% 42.1% 0.33%
Patrick Schuster 25 0 8.2 87.7 14.8% 30.3% 0.33%
Alec Asher 24 5 27.2 89.5 11.7% 35.2% 0.31%
Dillon Overton 24 5 24.1 88.3 13.3% 24.3% 0.08%
Shawn Morimando 23 0 4.2 90.5 18.5% 31.3% 0.05%
CSAA “measures the extent to which a participant tends to affect the likelihood of a strike being called, notwithstanding its final location,” according to Baseball Prospectus.

The highlighted player gives up the ghost, but let’s talk through the rest of the major competitors really quickly. We’ll return to the top.

Braden Shipley seems compelling, given both his pedigree and his placement on this list, but it’s worth noting that command was never listed as one of his best features on prospect reports, and he never had the tiny walk rates that you traditionally see with plus-command guys.

Brady Rodgers did have those walk rates in the minors, and threw five pitches more than 5% of the time last year, so maybe the Astros have something in their low-velocity righty. And Dan Farnsworth had this to say of the righty last year, so he’s a decent find in this query:

“He has very good command, which one Astros source emphasized was even better than his walks indicated — an impressive statement given his minuscule 25 walks in 115.2 Triple-A innings last season. Rodgers is the kind of pitcher who doesn’t excite anybody as a minor leaguer, but could also end up well outperforming his tools with pitchability.”

Cody Ege, traded from the Rangers to the Marlins in the Sam Dyson trade, was tagged for some of the lowest future value of that trade deadline, according to McDaniel. He was designated by the Marlins in August, and the Angels claimed him, designated him, and signed him to a minor-league contract. Information is light on him, but while there’s some agreement that he might be an asset against lefties and has some deception, there’s little agreement about his command. Similarly, Alec Asher and Patrick Schuster probably need to work on command, so they’re not great picks for Next Hendricks.

Okay, back to the top! Davies is a really nice pick for the next Hendricks. Not only does he fit the criteria that provided by the 2014 version of Hendricks, but that command number was first in baseball last year, and Hendricks (+2.53%) was fourth. Hendricks had a 16.9-point differential between his strikeout and walk rates (K-BB%) and a 48% ground-ball rate. Davies was at 14.2% and 46%, respectively. It’s a good fit.

The arsenal fits, too. When I mentioned this piece to Eric Longenhagen, he said of Davies that “he’s got the changeup.” You might rank Davies’ pitches in this order: changeup, sinker, cutter, curve. You’d rank Hendricks’ pitches the same way, though you might move the curve ahead of the cutter.

So if these guys are both changeup-first elite-command guys, what’s up with the two runs of ERA difference last season? The outcomes on their respective balls in play is the logical place to start, since Hendricks recorded a .250 BABIP and a 9.3% HR/FB, while Davies produced marks of .302 and 12.4% respectively. Regress them towards each other and you’re done, right?

Not quite. Rob Arthur did some work to show how Hendricks achieved his elite exit-velocity allowed last year. It’s instructive here, if only as a road map for Davies. He found that “getting ahead in the count, low pitch velocity, low vertical pitch location, and precise horizontal pitch location” all contributed to low exit velocities.

Davies got ahead in the count okay (35%) but not as good as Hendricks (39%), according to Statcorner. We know they have similar velocity, and similar command, but if you split command up the way Arthur did, some subtle differences show up. Davies was actually in the bottom of the zone more often than Hendricks — ninth best (17.7%) to 77th best (14.2%) among the 121 qualified pitchers last year.

But Hendricks’ brilliance shows up in his two-seamer usage, particularly against lefties. This is what Arthur might label “precise horizontal location,” and it’s particularly interesting because the Pirates once found that the pitch inside led to better outcomes on the following pitch on the outside part of the plate.

While Hendricks peppers lefties in and out with the sinker, it doesn’t appear as though Davies has the same skill. With the sinker, he prefers the outside corner. Even when you throw Davies’ four-seamer back into the mix — in case he used that, or the cutter, to hit the inside part of the plate to lefties — you don’t see the same kind of heat map from the Milwaukee pitcher.

Pitching inside more will help Davies improve his results on balls in play, maybe. The good news is that expanding use of his cutter — which he does actually throw inside to lefties, but not anywhere near as often as he throws his sinker — may be a way forward. The bad news is that, while Hendricks had the best defense in baseball behind him last year, and possibly one of the best defenses of all time, Davies enjoyed the second-worst defense in baseball last year. Maybe, as that Brewers team improves behind him, though, we’ll find that Zach Davies is indeed the next Kyle Hendricks.

With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.

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7 years ago

I’m not entirely sure fangraphs “missed” him. Prior to his first call up there was an article on here talking about players who were never top 100 prospects and ultimately out performed and then that lead to current prospects who fit that mold. Hendricks was one of the pitchers if memory serves in large part due to his excellent walk rate.

7 years ago
Reply to  beckdawg
7 years ago
Reply to  beckdawg

Looks like Fangraphs also hit on Mookie Betts, Rougned Odor, Jose Ramirez, Cesar Hernandez, Marcus Semien, Andrew Toles, Kevin Pillar and Matt Szczur