Should We Be Concerned About Kyle Hendricks’ Slow Start?

Now I know more than most that early-season struggles doesn’t necessarily translate to a season’s worth of frusturation. This time last season Anthony Rizzo was barely hitting over .200 and I couldn’t help but be alarmed. It didn’t matter that he was still hitting homers, driving in runs and getting on base, all I cared about was that batting average. Of course, Rizzo would find his stroke in June and go on to finish 4th in MVP voting, solidifying his spot as one of the most reliable position players in all of baseball.

Now we switch to Kyle Hendricks. The right hander enjoyed a breakout season last year, going 16-8 with a league-leading 2.13 ERA. However, so far this season he’s been anything but stellar. In three games he’s 1-1 with a rather repulsive 6.19 ERA, 1.375 WHIP and four home runs already given up. He’s on pace for 70 walks, which would vault past his career high. Frankly, he’s been awful. Unlike Rizzo, Hendricks hadn’t been a star player prior to his big 2016, though he was a viable back-of-the-rotation starter. With that being said, it’s difficult to tell whether or not last season was an outlier or the start of something great. We’ll be looking at some of the problems Hendricks has had this season and determine if it’s cause for legitimate concern.

 

High ERA

While ERA isn’t a perfect stat, having a high one certainly isn’t good. Hendricks ranks among the top 25 in worst ERA among pitchers with 10 or more IP. In the three games he’s pitched he’s given up 11 ER in only 16 IP while only reaching the 6th inning once. What’s surprising is over half of the earned runs he’s given up so far have come via a home run, which is something Hendricks excelled at preventing last season. However, it’s only a three game sample, and pitching poorly in your first couple starts will make your ERA very high, so expect Hendricks to bring it down as he gets more innings under his belt.

Verdict: Not concerned

Allowing Hard Contact

Hendricks isn’t going to blow you away with high velocity pitches. He’s a finesse pitcher who tries to paint the corners and induce soft contact. He wants hitters to put it in play, but the rub is they won’t be able to hit it very far. While he’s been able to cause soft contact at a similar rate than last year so far, opposing hitters are squaring up the ball at a much more higher rate. Last season Hendricks induced hard contact only 25.8 percent of the time, which ranked 4th in all of baseball last year. This season he’s giving it up 15 points higher at 40.8 percent, which can explain his high ERA and homer numbers. Furthermore, hitters are making contact on Hendricks’ pitches more frequently. Check out his contact heat map this season compared to last season, courtesy of Fangraphs:

Screen Shot 2017-04-25 at 3.54.42 PM.pngScreen Shot 2017-04-25 at 3.49.30 PM.png

That’s a whole lot of red this season. Albeit last season’s chart is a MUCH larger sample, it’s interesting nonetheless to look at how hitters are hitting Hendricks differently. So far hitters are making contact over 90 percent of the time on all corners of the plate, and even in areas outside the strike zone. This combined with hitters barreling the ball more and Hendricks’ decreased velocity to start the season translates to more frequent hard-hit balls, which is never a good thing for any pitcher. Hendricks recently told the Chicago Tribune that he’s always been a slow starter and that he’s expecting his fastball to creep back up to where it usually sits (87-89 MPH), though a few miles faster might not make that big of a difference if hitters keep pounding his pitches.

Verdict: Concerned

High Walk Totals

Last season Hendricks walked only 43 batters, tied for 10th among qualifying starters. This season he’s already given seven free passes, including four in 5 IP in his last outing against Milwaukee. What’s worse is that three of the seven opposing hitters whom he walked came around to score. With walks come more pitches, and Hendricks has thrown more pitches in his first three starts than he did last season… in two fewer innings. For someone who gets compared to Hall of Famer Greg Maddox, throwing 90+ pitches in five innings is certainly not Maddox-esque. Hendricks is throwing more balls too: 18 more than last season’s first three starts. For a pitcher who relies on throwing to the corners, perhaps he’s jsut not getting the calls. Or maybe it’s his admitted slow start syndrome acting up in the form of loss of control? It’s probably some combination of both, but we don’t expect it to last much longer.

Verdict: Not concerned

Last season Hendricks’ April didn’t fare well on the surface. The righty pitched to a tune of a 3.91 ERA, but the rest of his stats – namely his 1.09 WHIP and sparkling 4.75 strikeout per walk rate – were fantastic. This year it’s been a different story, and while his contact rate against and dip in velocity is cause for concern, everything else seems to be just early season struggles that, with adjustments, can be easily fixed. We know Hendricks is a studious guy so he’s no doubt aware of what’s going wrong. Expect him to find his groove sometime soon.

*All stats via Fangraphs

*Image via Arturo Pardavila III

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