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  • Kyle Hendricks was a Cy Young contender last season because of his ability to change speeds and work his sinker. His drop in velocity has all but diminished his effectiveness.
By Michael Beller
April 25, 2017

It may be early, but it’s not too early to worry about Kyle Hendricks. Last year’s MLB ERA leader has had a rough go of it thus far in the 2017 campaign. He has made three starts, pitching to a 6.19 ERA, 5.85 FIP and 1.38 WHIP and surrendered 15 hits, including four homers, and seven walks in 16 innings. He’s walking nearly two additional batters per nine innings than he did last season, and his walk rate has almost doubled. Basically, if it’s bad, Hendricks is doing far more of it than he did last year.

Hendricks made his third start of the season last week, in what was eventually a 7–4 win for the Cubs over the Brewers. By time the Cubs came back late, Hendricks was long gone. He allowed four runs on four hits and four walks in five innings, allowing homers to Travis Shaw and Jett Bandy. Before that start against the Brewers, Hendricks had taken the ball 77 times in his career. He had never allowed four walks and two homers in the same game and had allowed four walks or two homers just six times. One of those two-homer games was earlier this year. It may be just three starts, but it’s obvious that something isn’t right.

It doesn’t take much of a deep dive to find out what’s causing Hendricks’s issues. His sinker, the centerpiece of his arsenal, is averaging 85.9 mph this year, according to Brooks Baseball. Accounting for the new practice for measuring velocity this season, that’s down nearly four mph from last year. What’s more, there’s now fewer than six mph separating Hendricks’s sinker and his changeup. The interplay between those two pitches, and Hendricks’s expert command and control over both of them, is what turned him into a Cy Young candidate last year. With the difference in velocity all but erased from a practical sense­­—six mph is far too small a spread to upset a hitter’s rhythm—Hendricks is struggling to generate the whiffs and weak contact he did a season ago.

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To be fair, Hendricks never dominated with velocity. He drew generous comparisons to Greg Maddux last season largely because of the way he attacked hitters, winning by changing speeds, owning both sides of the plate, and using his sinker and changeup to keep hitters uncomfortable. That’s possible when you’re living between 89 and 91 mph with the fastball. When you’re down in the mid-80s, however, hitters have nothing to fear. A sinker in the high-80s or low-90s can get on a hitter in a hurry when a pitcher has messed with his head by changing speeds, especially when that sinker moves identically to his changeup. No one will be blown away by an 85-mph sinker, even if it’s paired with a top changeup.

It’s not hard to see where Hendricks got into trouble against the Brewers last week. Check out his pitch types and velocities from the first inning. Remember, this is when, at least theoretically, he should be at his strongest.

None of Hendricks’s pitches even eclipse 86.2 mph. Hendricks doesn’t use his four-seam fastball as frequently as the sinker, but that pitch regularly topped 90 mph last year. He’s in Jered Weaver territory with an 86-mph four-seam fastball. He surrendered a two-run homer to Travis Shaw on a changeup that I’m willing to say, without going back and watching all 773 changeups Hendricks threw last year, was worse than any change we saw from him in his breakout 2016 campaign.

As bad as that was, a sequence in the second inning lays bare what’s wrong with Hendricks this season. But first, let’s go back almost a full year. The date is May 17, 2016. Hendricks is in the midst of what will be an incredible season in which he finishes third in Cy Young voting, but no one knows that just yet. When he took the ball against these same Brewers on this day, he was still just a pitcher with a lot of promise who was off to a solid, though not spectacular, start to the season.

I want to take a look at a specific at-bat against Jonathan Villar, because it’s instructive for how Hendricks’s game has taken a turn for the worse. Ahead 1-2 in the count, Hendricks goes to his sinker. He spots it perfectly on the inner third, forcing Villar to give up on a pitch that darts back across the plate for what should have been strike three. Unfortunately for Hendricks, the home plate umpire was apparently fooled by the late movement, as well, and called it a ball.

Even though he didn’t get the call, Hendricks still has Villar right where he wants him. After showing him the sinker inside, Hendricks goes to the changeup away. By time Villar realizes it’s the change, and not the sinker, it’s too late.

OK, with that on the record, let’s get back to the present day. Hendricks had a nearly identical situation in last week’s start against the Brewers, with the only difference being the handedness of the hitter, in this instance Jett Bandy. There’s no one on base, meaning Hendricks is pitching out of the windup, and he’s ahead of Bandy, 1–2. Again, he goes to the sinker and, again, it’s pretty much where he wants it. This one misses outside, but it nearly catches the corner and, if nothing else, changes Bandy’s eye level. The big difference between this sinker to Bandy and last year’s version to Villar, though, is the velocity. This one checks in at just 84 mph, whereas the one that set up Villar to flail helplessly at the change was 88 mph.

On 2–2 this time around, Hendricks again comes back with the changeup. Bandy has a much different experience with the pitch than Villar did last season.

This really isn’t a bad pitch. It’s down, likely out of the zone, and spotted exactly where Miguel Montero calls for it. The issue, though, is that it’s 79 mph, just five mph slower than the sinker Bandy just saw, as well as the one he saw earlier in the at-bat that we didn’t show you. When there’s a 10-mph difference between the two offerings, as there was for Hendricks last year, it’s hard for a hitter to slow his hands down to stay on the changeup. When there’s a five-mph difference, it often ends up in the seats.

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This has been the case for Hendricks again and again this season. He got a 23.9% whiff rate with the changeup last year. That’s down to 15.4% this year. He has already allowed three homers on the sinker and changeup combined, one for the former and two for the latter, this season. He allowed 10 all of last year. Hendricks became a star last year because the whole was greater than the sum of its parts. His impeccable command, notably of the sinker and changeup, was a major factor, but his Maddux-like ability to change speeds, making the two pitches more effective together than they ever could be apart, was the driving force. With just five mph separating his sinker and changeup, he’s no longer changing speeds, and hitters are making him pay.

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Pitchers to watch this week

Wade Miley, Orioles

What in the world has gotten into Miley? The veteran righty, who has always been fine but never particularly good during his previous five full seasons in the majors, has a 1.89 ERA, 0.84 WHIP and 24 strikeouts in 19 innings this season. He put on a show in his last start, striking out 11 Reds in eight innings, allowing one run on two hits and a walk. The Baltimore offense didn’t give him enough run support to get him a win, but it was one of the best starts of his career. We talk all the time about “Cardinals devil magic,” but maybe it’s time to explore what’s going on in Baltimore, where the team always seems to get just enough pitching out of also-rans to be playoff contenders. Miley’s next scheduled start is Tuesday against the Rays.

Chris Sale, Red Sox

It’s hard to envision a future in which Sale retires without a Cy Young Award on his mantel. Through four starts this season, it seems Sale doesn’t want to wait any longer. The ace has been dominant in his first April with the Red Sox, totaling a 0.91 ERA, 0.71 WHIP and 42 strikeouts in 29 2/3 innings. He has just one win to show for his work, with the Red Sox scoring a combined 11 runs in his four starts, six of which came after he left the game, but he has been the best pitcher in the majors during the first month of the season. He’ll make one start this week, getting his first taste of the Red Sox-Yankees rivalry on Wednesday.

Amir Garrett, Reds

Despite the strong start to the season, it’s going to be a long year in Cincinnati. This is one of those teams that needs to look for silver linings and little victories wherever it can find them. It appears they already have one in Garrett. The 24-year-old was excellent in his first three starts, tossing 19 2/3 innings and allowing four runs on 14 hits, with 21 strikeouts against three walks. He got roughed up by the Brewers on Monday, though, allowing nine earned runs on eight hits and four walks in 3 1/3 innings. That makes his next start against the Cardinals on Sunday the first time in his young career in which he’ll have to bounce back from a tough outing.

Jason Vargas, Royals

Miley’s success if unlikely enough, but even his work was more predictable than that of Vargas, who has been the one of the best pitchers in the league this April. Vargas made his fourth start of the season on Monday, allowing three earned runs on seven hits in five innings in a loss to the White Sox. He struck out five while walking zero in the start, giving him 28 strikeouts against two walks on the season. Vargas will make one more start this week, facing the Twins on Sunday.

Joe Ross, Nationals

Ross made his first start of the season last week, allowing three runs on six hits and a walk, striking out seven in as many innings and earning a win over the Braves. The Nationals held Ross back thanks to their abundance of off-days to begin the season, though he did make a couple of starts with Triple-A Syracuse. He used primarily his sinker and slider against the Braves, and we should expect that sort of mix going forward. Ross dealt with both injury and fatigue last season, but there’s a lot to like about the righty in his age-24 season. He’s scheduled for two starts this week, facing the Rockies at Coors Field on Tuesday and Mets on Sunday.

Prospect Watch

Lucas Giolito, White Sox

Giolito has been a top prospect in baseball since the day the Nationals made him the 16th overall pick in the 2012 amateur draft. He quickly rose through Washington’s system, peaking as a consensus top-five prospect last year before making his MLB debut in June. Giolito made six appearances, including four starts, with the Nationals last season, pitching to a 6.75 ERA, 8.21 FIP and 1.78 WHIP, with 11 strikeouts against 12 walks in 21 1/3 innings. As talented as he was, he clearly wasn’t ready for the show.

The Nationals shipped Giolito to the White Sox this offseason as part of the deal that landed Adam Eaton in Washington. The belief is that Giolito, who will turn 23 years old in July, will be in a White Sox uniform at some point this season, but he’s going to spend a good chunk of the year with Triple-A Charlotte. The White Sox aren’t going anywhere this season, so they have no reason to rush any of their big-name prospects, most notably Giolito and Yoan Moncada.

Giolito has made three starts with Charlotte this season, and some of the issues that stood out with the Nationals last year are still present. He has walked nine batters and surrendered three homers in 14 innings. That’s the sign of a pitcher who lacks both command and control. He still has a tendency to lose the strike zone, and has yet to fine tune his approach when he is in the zone. Still, Giolito’s stuff is filthy, and he has 16 strikeouts to go along with those nine walks and three homers. He’s unlikely to be a major fantasy contributor this year, no matter when the White Sox promote him, but this will likely be the last season we say that.

GIF of the Week

What was the best part of Chris Sale’s 13-strikeout performance against the Blue Jays last week? The way he toyed with Jose Bautista every time he was at the plate. Sale struck out Bautista in all four of his plate appearances, and the hitter literally had no clue what to expect on all four strike threes. The result? Three check swings and a taken fastball right down the middle.

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