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:

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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

Series Review: Cincinnati Reds (April 21 – April 23)

The Cubs went back to what they’ve been doing all season long, taking two of three against their opponent. This time it was against their 2016 punching bags, the Cincinnati Reds. This series had a little bit of everything, so there’s plenty to discuss.

 

Anthony Rizzo is Heating Up

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Arturo Pardavila III

It was only a matter of time, to be honest. Rizzo was ‘struggling’ out the gate this season with only one home run and three RBI coming into the series. That all changed over the weekend when he clubbed three homers and collected eight RBI, increasing his SLG 121 points for good measure. He also hit a clutch, game-tying three-run homer on Friday to send the game into extras, a game the Cubs would eventually win.

Undoubtedly the leader of the team, if Rizzo can keep it going and get back to being that rock every team needs then the team will be even harder to beat.

 

Starting Pitching Becoming More of an Issue Each Week

It is early in the season, but by taking a look at the stats it’s easy to see that the Cubs’ pitching staff isn’t performing the way they’re capable of. The team has only six quality starts (at least 6 IP and less than three ER), which is tied for 8th worse in the league. They’re also giving up hard contact 33.4 percent of the time. Compared to the rest of the league and what they had last year, this isn’t a good sign:

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These stats, courtesy of Fangraphs, show that not only are the starters giving up more hard contact than last year, but they’re giving it up at an above average rate. It’s no wonder the team ranks 8th in HR/FB rate (home run per fly ball); hard hit balls in the air tend to be homers more often than not. The Reds hit five long balls in the series and crushed the ball to a tune of a 78.3 percent hard-hit rate, 2nd in the league over the weekend. Last year’s team’s bread and butter was giving up soft contact while preventing hard contact, and while the starters are still inducing soft contact at an above average rate, the homers will keep piling up if the staff keeps allowing hard-hit balls.

Ben Zobrist Struggling Offensively

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Arturo Pardavila III

Ben Zobrist is certainly one of the most important players on the team. However his sluggish start to the season has made him perhaps the most underwhelming player so far. He’s sitting at a slash line of just .212/.339/.346 with two homers and only 5 RBI; not the kind of numbers you want from your cleanup hitter. By digging deeper we can see that Zobrist’s struggles may stem from his plate discipline not being as sharp as it has in recent years. Take a look at those stats, courtesy of Fangraphs:

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O = Outside of Strike Zone / Z = Inside of Strike Zone / SwStr = Swinging Strike

By looking at the stats it’s easy to see that Zobrist’s plate discipline has taken a dive here early in the 2017 season. Not only is the veteran swinging at more pitches outside of the strike zone (something he excelled at last year), he’s making contact at those pitches at a far worse percent then he has in recent years. He’s also making contact on pitches in general at an almost 10 percent fewer clip then the past two years. He’s also swinging the bat more often, which wouldn’t be a problem if he was making contact like he has in recent years, but he isn’t. He only played in one game this series due to a back injury and did go 2-4 with a double and two runs, so maybe he’s on the rise. Nevertheless, it’ll be interesting to see if Joe Maddon makes any moves in the lineup to accommodate this sluggish start.

 

Jason Heyward Continues to Hit

Jason Heyward’s new swing is doing wonders. The outfielder collected four more hits and seven more RBI in the Cincinnati series, pushing his slash line up to .297/.348/.422 with 12 RBI, 2nd on the team. He also mashed his first two homers over the weekend, something he didn’t do until June of last year.

What’s interesting is his hard contact percentage is the same at this point in the season then it was all last year, but his soft contact percentage is nearly seven points lower, with his medium contact percentage also climbing. Reducing the number of softly hit balls is one of the best ways to maximize a plate appearance, as it ensures that when you do hit the ball it’s going to be barreled up and more likely to drop in for a hit. The new swing he’s implemented is doing just that, as his BABIP (batting average on balls in play) is 25% higher then it was last year. If he continues to see the ball well then he’s definitely going to be in contention for comeback player of the year.

Series Review: Pittsburgh Pirates (April 14 – April 16)

OUCH! The Cubs suffered a sweep against the Pittsburgh Pirates to drop to .500 on the season. It’s never fun to lose three games in a row, but to lose three games in a row during your home-opening week and against a division rival? Now that’ll sting for awhile. What’s worse is all three should’ve been victories if not for some bad luck and terrible bullpen pitching. We take a look at some of the miscues here.

 

Can’t Cash In With Bases Loaded

Four different times this series the Cubs were up to bat with the bases loaded: every single trip ended in 0 runs. The first game featured two separate occasions in the last two innings with a chance to regain the lead. However, two groundouts squandered any chance for a comeback. The team’s now 2-11 this season with the bases juiced with only five runs to show for it. That simply won’t get it done.

Bullpen Implodes

The bullpen, frankly, was atrocious this weekend. Justin Grimm, Pedro Strop, Brian Duensing and Koji Uehara all blew leads and let Pittsburgh back in the game. The starters did excellent; in fact, all three either left the game while winning or tied. Lester in particular today pitched an outstanding game. It’s a shame the pen couldn’t get it done.

Too Many Men Left On Base

The Cubs have the kind of offense where there’s going to be plenty of opportunities to score some runs. However, the Cubs were pitiful this series with runners in scoring position, going 7-27 and leaving a total of 14 baserunners at 2nd and/or 3rd base. They were leaving 8.27 runners on base per game this season coming into today’s game, according to teamrankings.com. That’s last in the league, and the number should stay the same after leaving eight more stranded today. A clutch hit or two probably would’ve put the Cubs in a position to win all three games. That unfortunately didn’t happen, and the Cubs paid for it with three losses.

What’s next: The Cubs face the Milwaukee Brewers in another three-game divisional set. The two teams faced off last week, with the Cubs winning two of three. Lackey, Anderson and Hendricks are slated to be on the bump trying to turn this homestand into a winning one.

Series Preview: Los Angeles Dodgers (April 10 – April 13)

Three series, three wins. The Cubs once again took two of three against their opponent, (this time being the Los Angeles Dodgers), and once again there were some positives and negatives to analyze. Here we take our crack at them.

 

Starting Pitching Once Again Dominates

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Phil Roeder

The Dodgers scored one, one and zero runs in the series against Cubs starting pitching, good for a combined 1.06 ERA. Great team defense was heavily involved in keeping that number so low, but we already knew that the team would have run-stopping defenders behind the mound. The starting staff is now No.1 in the league in ERA and is top 10 in numerous categories, including strikeouts, WHIP, BABIP, left on base percentage (LOB%) and soft contact induced. Safe to say they’re doing ok.

Albert Almora Jr., Gold Glover

We already know that Almora is one of the best defensive CF in the league. In case you didn’t know, he reminded you yesterday with not one but TWO incredible catches.

That’s two extra base hit-saving snags, one of which prevented Los Angeles from tying the game. It’s no wonder Seager, who hit both balls, raised his helmet in admiration after the second – how could you not? Rumors from inside the Cubs’ camp state that Almora will get a little more reps than fellow CF Jon Jay, but the way he’s playing defense (and hitting the ball), he might get most of them by the time the season ends.

 

Rizzo and Russell Show Some Pop

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Arturo Pardavila III

After eight games without a homer, Anthony Rizzo and Addison Russell finally hit their firsts yesterday. However, the whole series they’ve been squaring up the ball, and Rizzo would’ve had his first yesterday if not for the wind. Russell may have had one too but it’s hard to tell, and along with his homer yesterday he had two other deep fly balls that stayed in the yard, which means that it’s only a matter of getting the bat a little more up on the ball. Expect him to make some adjustments.

Kyle Schwarber Becoming the New Adam Dunn?

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Arturo Pardavila III

Retired slugger Adam Dunn used to fascinate ball writers because he always more often than not did one of three things when he came up to the plate: walk, strikeout or hit a home run. Dubbed the “King of the Three True Outcomes,” so far this season Kyle Schwarber is on pace to be at least in the royal court. In 42 plate appearances, Schwarber’s struck out, walked or hit a homer in 26 of them, good for 62 percent. Strikeouts account for over 60 percent of the total, so of course we’d like to see him put the bat on the ball more. However, with Schwarber drawing that many walks (and with his OBP being the highest on the team at .381) the decision to have him as the leadoff hitter is still a good one.

What’s next: The Cubs take on the Pittsburgh Pirates in a three-game set at Wrigley Field. Two young Pirate pitchers, Tyler Glasnow and Jameson Taillon, are slated to start the last two games, so look for the Cubs to potentially take advantage, even though both have plus stuff.

Series Review: Milwaukee Brewers (April 7 – April 9)

The Cubs took two of three against the Brewers in a three-game set. Just like the series against St. Louis, the team lost the opener on a walkoff before winning the last two games. Here’s what stood out the most.

 

Heeeeeee’s Baaaaaaack

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Arturo Pardavila III

Be honest, there was no way you were worried about Kris Bryant right? The defending MVP started off slow, going 0-14 to begin the year. Since then he’s gone 7-15  with three RBIs, putting away any notion of an MVP hangover. He’s still looking for his first homer however, but he’s Kris Bryant so those will come.

Brett Anderson Looks Solid

In his first game of the season, the oft-injured Anderson threw 5.2 innings and only gave up one ER on 5 hits. More importantly he showed he’s relatively healthy, which will pay big dividends as the season goes along. If he can avoid the injury bug, he’s a great back-of-the-rotation option.

Montgomery Continues Struggles

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Arturo Pardavila III

To be fair, Montgomery pitched two great innings in last night’s game. However, he once again lost the game, giving up a single, walk, HBP and finally a wild pitch in the 11th that ended the game in a walkoff. With many other pieces peforming well, it’ll be interesting to see if Maddon keeps sticking with Montgomery these next few days.

 

Heyward’s Hitting!

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Dave Herholz

After leaving St. Louis with a quad of hits, Heyward continued to mash the ball well, going 3-9 with three RBI in two games. He very easily could’ve gone 5-5 in today’s game if not for a couple of outstanding defensive plays by Milwaukee fielders. He’s getting on base at a great clip so far (.391) and he’s making hard contact, so it looks like his new approach at the plate is working.

What’s next: The Cubs return home to Wrigley Field tomorrow for the first time since winning it all in a three-game set with the Los Angeles Dodgers, and it should be a very raucous crowd. Jon Lester, John Lackey and Brett Anderson respectively are set to take the hill, and the Dodgers should give the Cubs their first big test of the season.

Series Review: St. Louis Cardinals (April 2 – April 6)

Nothing like opening up the season against your biggest rivals. The 2017 Cubs started things off right against arch nemesis St. Louis, winning two in a row after losing the opener to take the series 2-1. Here are the most noteworthy things that occurred.

 

The Starting Pitching Looks Great

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Arturo Pardavila III

The starting pitching picked up right where it left off, keeping the team in every single game. If not for two defensive miscues in games 1 and 3, the trio of Jon Lester, Jake Arrieta and John Lackey would have given up only one earned run. However, even with those errors the Cubs’ starting staff ranks 2nd in WAR and each was excellent in leaving runners on base.

Defense Impacted Games, For Better or For Worse

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Arturo Pardavila III

Following historically one of the best defenses of all time was going to be a challenge. However, the Cubs have uncharacteristically made a few errors that they normally do not make, one of which ended up playing a huge part in the opener. Granted the culprit, Javier Báez, claimed that a white sign obstructed his view of the groundball, the play should’ve been made and it cost the Cubs a run that ultimately ended up making a difference in the game. In the finale, Ben Zobrist dropped a sure-fire double play ball on the transfer that ended up costing the Cubs three runs. Another drop by Pedro Strop at 1st almost ended up hurting, though Carl Edwards Jr worked his way out of it. Nevertheless, the team’s defense also made some spectacular plays that saved games, none more impressive nor important then Albert Almora Jr.’s home run-robbing catch in game 2:

Look for the defense to look more like that.

 

Kris Bryant Struggling Out of the Gate

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Arturo Pardavila III

Look, Kris Bryant is a tremendous baseball player. He’s also human, which means he is prone to err. So far this season the reigning NL MVP has started off 0-13 with six strikeouts. There’s no sugar coating it: he’s sucked. Whether it’s mechanical or a case of the yips remains to be seen, but the fact that the team has won two of three games without their best player doing hardly anything offensively is a testament to the strength of this team. He did however make some nifty defensive plays in game 2 which played a big part in preserving the win, so at least his whole game hasn’t slumped.

 

Kyle Schwarber Sparkling in Leadoff Spot

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Arturo Pardavila III

Someone who isn’t struggling is Kyle Schwarber, who’s showing just how productive he can be in the leadoff spot. His patience at the plate has lead to long at-bats, walks and of course a patented Schwarbomb. His .500 on base percentage is what’s important here, and if he can keep being passable in LF then it’s going to be a fun season to watch what he can do with the bat.

What’s next: The Cubs open up a three game series tonight versus the Milwaukee Brewers tonight at 7:15 CT. The cancelled game on Wednesday allowed Joe Maddon to flip the rotation, tabbing Arrieta to start on Sunday instead of Lester, who will start the next day against the hapless-against-lefties Los Angeles Dodgers. Brett Anderson and Kyle Hendricks will make their season debuts tonight and tomorrow, respectively.

So Far, Kyle Schwarber Has Been Nothing but Stellar in the Leadoff Spot

I know I know, it’s only been two games. However, it’s hard not to notice how comfortable Kyle Schwarber has been hitting leadoff so far this season. And no, his success hasn’t come from any leadoff home runs or anything like that. It’s come from his ability to work the pitcher and get on base.

Even though it’s only been two games, Schwarber is among the league leaders in pitches seen and pitchers per plate appearance. In nine plate appearances he’s seen a total of 44 pitches, good for an average of 4.89 pitches per PA, both sixth in the league. Of course part of that stems from him getting more at-bats because he’s No.1 in the order, but it’s something to highlight nonetheless. His patience led him to two walks (one intentional) in last night’s game against St. Louis, and it would’ve been three if not for an incorrect strike three call that was outside of the plate (which was a seven-pitch at-bat by the way). His leadoff walk in that game was a testament to his ability to foul off pitches while also taking close balls. Take a look at that at-bat’s pitch chart, courtesy of MLB.com:

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After getting down 1-2, Schwarber fouled off a tough curve, took a borderline ball, fouled off another pitch before finally taking another borderline pitch, this one a fastball that was moving away from the plate, to earn the walk. While he did end up being stranded at 1st base, that eight-pitch base on balls set the tone for the game by allowing the hitters coming after him to get a good look at St. Louis pitcher Adam Wainwright. The right-hander threw three of the four different pitches he threw that at-bat at least two times, which can go a long way in helping future hitters figure out how the pitcher’s throwing that day.

Another at-bat worth mentioning was Schwarber’s second AB of the Sunday night game. Facing Carlos Martinez, whom Schwarber singled off to start the game, Schwarber took three borderline balls, two of which that spent the majority of their flight in the strikezone before barely missing the lower half of the plate.

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After missing outside with the first pitch, Martinez tried to bury him low for the rest of the at-bat, mostly with two-seam fastballs. However, Schwarber took one 96 MPH on the fifth pitch and roped it into the right center gap for a double. Again the Cubs couldn’t cash in, but the fact that Schwarber collected two hits in three tries against a pitcher who was arguably throwing one of the best games of his young career shows the poise and patience that Schwarber posseses.

Detractors before the season said Schwarber was too slow to be an adequate leadoff hitter. He’s putting those naysayers to rest by reaching base safely five times in nine tries, and while he doesn’t have any runs yet, once Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo inevitably get going it’s going to be hard to say Schwarber doesn’t belong hitting in the No.1 spot.

 

*Image via Arturo Pardavila III