What Was Kyle Hendricks’ Big Adjustment Last Year?
Last year seems so long ago, but if you remember back to September, you probably remember Kyle Hendricks at his best. That month, he struck out nearly seven batters for every walk. He ended the season with 12 straight shutout innings and 17 strikeouts against two walks. Against the Royals and in Milwaukee.
What was the magic all about that month? Because, if Hendricks is that guy again, there’s no competition for his spot in the rotation. With regard to his pitching mix, though, nothing stands out as obviously different.
Flat lines. Roughly identical fastball usage. Roughly identical usage of his secondary pitches. And one finds similar results regarding his velocity, his horizontal movement, his vertical movement: Hendricks’ pitches, and his selection of those pitches, was about the same over the last four months of the season.
Those two changeups? “I basically split it up, I use the cut changeup against right-handed hitters and the regular changeup against left-handed hitters,” he said Monday at the Cubs’ Spring Training facility. But that hasn’t changed, he did that all last year.
Hendricks actually developed the ‘regular’ changeup (left) after the “cut” changeup (right). It’s just a change in the placement of the seams, but the ball comes out more “sideways” with the cut change grip.
He’s still looking for a breaking ball. Said Henricks: “I’ve been working on my curveball a lot, it feels a lot better this spring. It’s never going to be a breakout, wipeout pitch for me, but more first pitch, steal a strike, late and buried maybe.” But he didn’t find that breaking ball in September. In fact, his curve lost a bit of movement and was probably actually less effective at the end of the season.
So what was the adjustment he made late last year that brought on all that success?
“I got back into my mechanics and was hitting more spots, and got more called strikes,” suggested the right-hander. And the data support his observations regarding the called strikes. As you can see in the graph below, he was getting more called strikes per pitch in September than he got all year.
But his path to that excellence still isn’t quite clear. Path ended up being the key word, though: “I was sinking on my backside, collapsing it, and my arm path was getting long,” admitted Hendricks.
Recognizing the problem was only the first step. Along with pitching coach Chris Bosio, Hendricks had to go to work. He tried to stay taller to avoid collapsing in the back, and get out front more. He worked on his arm path in bullpen sessions, worked on getting his muscle memory to latch on to the better mechanics. “It took a lot of hard work,” admitted Hendricks, “but luckily Bos and I started finding some cues that worked by the end of the year.”
Those cues? “Stand tall and make sure my arm path stays out in front,” Hendricks says of the work he does on his first few throws in every bullpen. And that’s the sort of thing we can maybe see. By way of illustration, watch his throwing arm as it comes up to the throwing position in July.
Now look at the same arm in September. Does it look like he’s bringing the ball up more directly, and more in front of his body here?
Without seeing it from the side, we can’t be certain about the arm path. One thing that does leap out from these two videos is that Hendricks begins his delivery from a taller position in the second. He’s less crouched, and perhaps that helped him avoid collapsing on the back side, and helped him get out in front and release the ball further out in front of him.
Long arm paths in the back are not ideal, but changing something like that in-season is very difficult. Even as Hendricks was working on that, he found that it stuck some days and went away others. It’s not surprising that it’s difficult to find a pair of images that easily captures the before and after arm paths.
Kyle Boddy at Driveline Baseball has found — using force-plate analysis — that force off the back foot is not correlated to velocity or movement. But that doesn’t mean collapsing isn’t bad. Releasing the ball further out in front and “blocking” your delivery with a strong front foot are correlated positively with results, and the changes that Hendricks and Bosio made looked to have helped the right-hander rediscover his mechanics in those areas. Those changes — and the curveball — also give us something to watch this spring.
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.
Love those graphs Eno!