The way Jake Arrieta has thrown the ball this year — especially in the second half — has ended any discussion about who the Cubs #1 starter is. Arrieta has propelled himself into the discussion of true aces, and he’ll be the guy the Cubs put on the hill with their season on the line next Wednesday. With Jon Lester slotting in to the #2 spot, the Cubs top two starters should be able to hold their own against any other staff in baseball.
After that, though, things get a little more interesting. When asked who his third starter in the postseason might be, Joe Maddon stated simply “I don’t know.” Jason Hammel began the year as the team’s third starter, and his overall numbers are quite good for a middle-of-the-rotation guy, but those numbers are based on an excellent first half and a pretty lousy second half. Prior to the All-Star break, opposing hitters posted just a .261 wOBA against Hammel, but since the break, they’ve put up a .371 mark against him. The problems may be tied to a hamstring injury that landed him on the DL in July, and unless he really shows them something in the last week of the season, it’s not clear that the Cubs can trust that he’s healthy enough to be effective in high-leverage postseason innings.
Hammel’s recent ineffectiveness have given rise to the idea that the Cubs should be open to throwing bullpen games when Arrieta and Lester aren’t on the hill. With former starters Travis Wood and Trevor Cahill both providing some good performances in middle relief, the Cubs probably could simply tell Hammel to go max-effort to two or three innings, then bring in the left-handed Wood for a couple of innings, and go back to Cahill as the bridge to the late-inning relief corps. Such a plan would mostly limit the times through the order penalty, and would give the team multiple chances to pinch-hit for the pitcher’s spot, increasing their expected offensive output as well. Given the high-stakes nature of the postseason and the frequency of off-days, these bullpen games are almost certainly a better idea than asking a questionably-healthy starter to give you five or six innings in a crucial game.
But while that may very well be the best plan to get through the games started by Hammel, I don’t think the Cubs need to go that extreme with their third starter spot. Instead, I think they have a perfectly acceptable #3 starter, and they should give Kyle Hendricks a chance to prove it.
Given the sheer number of dominating power arms heading for October, it can be easy to overlook Hendricks as a weak link. From a stuff perspective, he’s never going to impress, with a fastball that sits around 89 and no big breaking ball as an obvious out-pitch. Hendricks is the classic soft-tossing command guy who has succeeded by throwing strikes and fooling hitters with an excellent change-up, and these pitchers are chronically underrated compared to guys who get the same results but throw harder.
But at the end of the day, results are what matter, and Hendricks’ results suggest that he’s an above-average big league pitcher. Here are his career numbers since getting to the majors last summer.
That’s the classic good command-pitcher line; an average strikeout rate buoyed by very good walk and groundball rates. When you pound the strike zone but can still get groundballs and some strikeouts, you can succeed in the big leagues, even without premium stuff. Sonny Gray has basically ridden this brand of results — plus some BABIP prevention — to All-Star status, though his stuff is clearly several ticks better than Hendricks. But he’s a good example of what can be done with lots of strikes, groundballs, and a roughly average strikeout rate.
More realistically, a better comparison for Hendricks would be a guy like Mike Leake, only Hendricks has done a better job of keeping the ball in the yard during his time in the big leagues, and he’s missed more bats as well. And with some recent changes, he might be trending even more towards an increasing strikeout rate that could allow him to really establish himself as a quality mid-rotation starter.
When Hendricks got to the big leagues, he mixed five pitches; he mostly used his two-seam fastball and change-up, and then worked in a cut fastball as his third pitch, with a curveball and four-seam fastball as his less-often used secondary pitches. And because he pitched very well in his rookie season last year, he carried that same repertoire over to 2015, but some early struggles (by ERA, at least) have seemingly convinced Hendricks to adjust his pitch-mix. Most notably, he’s ditched the cutter.
And probably for good reason. On the season, his cut fastball was called a ball more often than any of his other pitches, generated fewer swings and swinging strikes than anything else he threw, and had the highest home run rate of any of his offerings. By pitch-type linear weights, his cutter was 3 runs below average per 100 pitches, the only one of his pitches that got below average results.
To replace the cutter, he’s upped his usage on both his change-up and his four-seam fastball, and the early results are promising. Here are Hendricks’ numbers since August 1st, since he began life without his cut fastball.
And here are his numbers since the start of September, when he’s really pushed the changes a bit more aggressively, pushing his change-up usage to the highest rate he’s posted in any month since getting to the big leagues.
The August ERA was a bit inflated due to the elevated home run rate, but there’s no real reason to think that Hendricks has suddenly become a guy who is going to struggle with the long ball; HR/FB rate over two months is essentially meaningless. But strikeout rate, on the other hand, is a bit more stable, and Hendricks’ strikeout rate has been spiking up over the last two months. He’s struck out an ace-like 30% of the batters he’s faced in September, and over his three most recent starts, it’s 37%. Last night, he struck out 41% of the batters he faced, made more impressive by the fact that he was facing the Royals, who are striking out at an historically low rate this season.
Certainly, you don’t want to overreact to recent data, and it’s always better to keep an eye on the bigger picture. But even in the big picture, Kyle Hendricks has shown himself to be an above average big league starter, and more recently, he’s started making guys swing and miss with some regularity. By dumping his cutter and focusing more on his very good change-up, Hendricks may be finding a way to go from a pitch-to-contact strike-thrower into being a guy who can really take over a game when need be.
Perhaps instead of Mike Leake, perhaps Hendricks is heading down the Doug Fister path. And despite never really throwing that hard, Fister was a premier postseason performer for the Tigers once they gave him a chance to show what he could do on the big stage. Hendricks won’t overwhelm anyone with his fastball, but if you get past velocity, there’s no real reason to worry about the Cubs #3 starter. Kyle Hendricks is worth trusting.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.