2016 was a good year for breakout pitchers, and Kyle Hendricks leads that charge in the National League. His 2.13 ERA was best in the majors by 0.31 runs, he was a horse throwing 190 innings, and had the 13th best FIP based WAR in the league. And despite playing for one of the most media-frenzied franchises in all of sports, surrounding their successful conquest to vanquish the curse of the billy-goat, Hendricks just didn’t seem to get the fair attention he deserved. Many see him still as more of a flash in the pan or a nice breakout that will come back down some, but if we look deeper, there’s a lot to like about Hendricks keeping his game the same in the future.
Hendricks debuted with a half season’s worth of starts in 2014, and has added 63 more in the past couple years. Yet he’s shown remarkable consistency so far in his rate stats and peripherals. His FIP has been, in chronological order, 3.32, 3.36, 3.20. There’s almost no variance, and it’s much better than the major league average of 3.91 over the entire time frame. His strikeout rates show similar consistency, although struggling in his rookie stint to find whiffs – he’s sat at 22.6% then 22.8% the past two seasons. His walk rates have been 4.7%, 5.8%, 5.9%. So when people complain that his drop in ERA from 3.95 to 2.13 is too large without regression, remind them that he’s been the same, dominant pitcher over his career (and especially the last couple of seasons).
Of course, while his stats have been great even though the ERA didn’t line up, his ERA last season is a little low to expect going forward. The Cubs have a good defense which will help him beat his FIP with some regularity, but his peripheral stats haven’t been good enough yet to show that he has what it takes to be a consistent Cy Young contender.
So to deal with this, a little more forecasting is required. What we see with Hendricks is that his whiff rates have gone up as his career has progressed, from 8.1% last year to 10.0% this year, and it improved almost every month in 2016. His expected strikeout rates given these numbers would be closer to 25%, so it seems that the results are lagging behind the skills for now. A 25% strikeout rate puts him more firmly among the game’s elite, and of course helps his ERA stay nice and low like in 2016.
Hendricks also excels at getting hitters to put themselves in bad spots with batted ball profiles. He gets a large amount of ground balls (49.4% career) and infield fly balls (10.3% career) which takes advantage of a) his superb defense behind him, and b) the easiest batted ball types to turn into outs. It’s tough for measures like FIP to account for this (SIERA does a better job but is exceptionally complicated), and a pitcher like Hendricks will be undervalued by it. It’s another reason his ERA will continue to beat his FIP.
A more recent development in Hendricks’ arsenal has been growing confidence in his curveball. He’s using it much more against lefties, and targets it mostly the second and third time through the batting order. This helps limit the third time penalty (generally any lineup turns into all-stars as they face a pitcher for the third time that day) by expanding his arsenal, especially to the stronger hand on him. Not to mention he has one of the better changeups in the league, and threw it 27% of the time last year (a big increase from years past). Hendricks is beginning to bust platoon splits easier, giving him overall more value.
While Hendricks is going to be valued pretty high heading into draft day, don’t be afraid to buy in. Often times it’s easy to get scared away by someone who broke out like he did with the performance he showed in 2016. And there are going to be people saying that he can’t beat his FIP by so much heading forward. But what he’s shown is that he can beat his FIP, and we should also expect it to come down, so to go ahead and jump on the Hendricks hype train. He has an insane amount of talent for someone who can’t even average 90 MPH, and even for guys that can. The underlying numbers show that the rest of his numbers are ready to improve, and his ERA will stay in the low twos. Kyle Hendricks didn’t have a career year in 2016, but it was his coming out party. He’s here to stay as a pitching force for years to come.
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