Just yesterday, I wrote about some concerns regarding Jake Arrieta. In particular, over time, Arrieta has gotten worse against left-handed hitters, losing the effectiveness of his best pitch while also losing his pinpoint command. This can be traced back to Arrieta losing the remarkable consistency of his mechanics. Arm speed and release point are everything, and for the last little while, Arrieta has been fighting uphill. He needs to get himself right before the playoffs.
Arrieta remains plenty good, but he has some stuff to work out. Kyle Hendricks, meanwhile, has nothing to work out. And compared to Arrieta, Hendricks has followed kind of the opposite course. He’s gotten better against left-handed hitters. He’s essentially added a new pitch while honing his pinpoint command. His mechanics are as consistent as they’ve ever been. Right now, we’re seeing the best version of Kyle Hendricks. You’ve probably read about him limiting quality contact. When you dig in, it’s no mystery how it’s happened.
In the Arrieta post, I quickly narrowed the focus to just performance against lefties. I’m doing the same here. In each of the last two years, Arrieta has been good against righties. In each of the last two years, Hendricks has been good against righties. Now let’s get into the lefty stuff. So much of this is about their contact, so I’ll draw from Baseball Savant. Last season, Hendricks ranked in the 53rd percentile in average exit velocity allowed to lefties. He ranked in the 33rd percentile if you just focus on balls hit in the air. This season, he ranks in the 94th and 92nd percentiles, respectively. Right away, that’s a positive indicator.
Want to leave Statcast stuff behind? Want independent support? We can do that! Last season, Hendricks ranked in the 55th percentile in hard-hit rate minus soft-hit rate, against lefties. Once more, slightly better than average. This season, he ranks in second place. Facing lefties — lefties with the platoon advantage — Hendricks has yielded more soft-hit balls than hard-hit balls. You see his low ERA, then you see his low BABIP. We’re all trained to believe that BABIP is about defense and luck. It’s not that simple. Hendricks is harder to square up. Last year, lefties had an ISO of .208. This year they’re at .121.
It’s not new to say that Hendricks is hard to hit. This has been the focus for as long as he’s had a low ERA. His peripherals haven’t meaningfully budged. The whole story is the weak contact. It’s the explanation that’s extra fun. To be clear: With more consistent mechanics, anything is possible. Hendricks has his best-ever consistency, so he also has his best-ever execution. How has this manifested? From Baseball Savant, again, here are Hendricks’ fastballs against lefties:
Some different things are happening. Hendricks is a little more on-target on the outer edge. In addition, he’s now better establishing himself on the inner edge, underneath a lefty’s hands. Compared to last year, this Hendricks is better able to go side to side. That’s important, and you can imagine how Hendricks’ sinker could be rather annoying when thrown accurately inside. An inside sinker on the edge is one of the prettiest pitches in the game. But there’s a little more to this. From Brooks Baseball, now:
That’s the other element. Hendricks has always had two fastballs, but for a while he strongly preferred his sinker. Against lefties, he’s now grown fond of his four-seamer, such that recently it’s been even more frequent. Reduced to something simpler: In the past, Kyle Hendricks was mostly a one-fastball pitcher. Now he’s a two-fastball pitcher, and he can command them both.
Hendricks has talked about how his more consistent mechanics have allowed him to throw both fastballs. It’s also helped him with his curveball, which is now commonly used to steal called strikes. But back to the heaters — this plot uses more information from Brooks Baseball. Look at how Hendricks has used his sinker against lefties over the past two seasons:
Hendricks trusts in his changeup. It’s easily his best pitch. He trusts in his curveball. And now he trusts in his four-seamer, so there’s not a single situation in which a lefty can sit on a sinker. A left-handed hitter is always having to guess. Look at how even that is, for 2016. In all those situations, Hendricks has thrown his sinker roughly a quarter of the time. That means he’s thrown something else roughly three-quarters of the time, and he has three other pitches. He’s good about commanding them all. He doesn’t even limit one fastball to one side — sinkers and four-seamers will go inside or out. I’d assume that makes things difficult to judge. The evidence would agree.
It’s always helpful to see players in action, so here’s Hendricks from Tuesday, against lefty Gregory Polanco. The first pitch:
That’s a perfectly-located four-seamer, down and away. Nothing for Polanco to do. If I may judge from body language, Polanco looks like he anticipated more run. Hendricks’ four-seamer almost has some cutting action to it. The 0-and-1 delivery:
There’s the curve. Hendricks probably wanted it a little closer to the zone, but that’s a swing-and-miss pitch, a back-foot breaking ball that gets a lot of lefties to chase. No matter; 1-and-1.
Good changeup and good take. This is a pitch that just misses, and in part this reflects Polanco’s own improvements. Anyway, now we have Hendricks behind in the count 2-and-1. Maybe that calls for a sinker?
Not this year. It’s another good changeup, in a fastball count, and Polanco swung right through it. Polanco did, at least, have a strike to give. The fifth and final offering:
Not a sinker in the bunch. At 2-and-2, Hendricks went up and in with a four-seamer and he got Polanco to pop out. That was going to be too close to take, but from Polanco’s perspective, you can’t really be sure how that fastball is going to break. If it’s a four-seamer, it stays in and stays up. If it’s a sinker, it dives down and more toward the middle. Polanco wound up underneath the ball. He didn’t strike out, but he might as well have. Just another weakly-hit batted ball for Kyle Hendricks to add to his tally.
The name people have become increasingly willing to mention is Greg Maddux. This is because Hendricks is succeeding in much the same way as prime Maddux did. Leaving little details aside, the biggest problem with this is that Maddux did what Maddux did for like 10 or 15 years. Hendricks has succeeded for the relative equivalent of an eye-blink. If Hendricks is really the new Greg Maddux, we can maybe start talking about that five years down the line. For the time being, it’s fine to appear Maddux-esque. Even before, Kyle Hendricks was pretty good. Now he’s using everything he has, and he’s putting it where he wants to. We still don’t know that much about pitchers who allow lousy contact. We stand to learn a lot from this pitcher in particular.
Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.