Kyle Hendricks is one of the better pitchers in baseball. Despite being a notorious soft tosser, he's had great success against big league hitters by maintaining excellent control, disguising pitches well, throwing early strikes, and keeping hitters off balance.
He's my favorite pitcher because of his mental abilities to outsmart hitters. He does not have the best raw stuff. But he knows how to use it, when to use it, and has developed his pitches over time to become a finely tuned weapon. If you just watch him raw, he doesn't seem that impressive. But as you start to look between the lines, you can begin to appreciate just how many little things he does so well. Today, I present my research project on why it is so hard to hit Kyle Hendricks.
Kyle Hendricks is a solid and consistent pitcher. He is the owner of a 3.12 ERA, which is among the best in all of baseball. He consistently beats a higher FIP. He rarely walks anyone, strikes out enough to get by, and will induce weak contact. He limits baserunners (both via hit and walk) and home runs, leading to a solid ERA. Kyle Hendricks is a top 10 pitcher in the game today:
1.94 BB/9 (4th among active pitchers)
.8937 HR/9 (11th among active pitchers)
8 H/9 (15th among active pitchers)
3.9 K/BB (13th among active pitchers)
1.1047 WHIP (7th among active pitchers)
3.12 ERA (4th among active pitchers)
22.3 WAR (Per baseball reference, tied for 25th best among active pitchers)
Hendricks has accomplished so much, despite not having the high heat that many of his contemporaries do. How is Kyle Hendricks so unhittable?
Good pitches throw strikes. Not right down the middle, but clipping the corners. A good pitch on the outside will force hitters to swing more often, rather than wait for a pitch to tee up.
A couple key stats on how well Kyle Hendricks throws strikes:
51.9% overall strike percentage, (MLB average of 49.9)
48.1% outside of the zone, (MLB average 51.1%)
45.9% on the edge of the strike zone, (MLB average 39%)
65.3% First Pitch Strike percentage (32nd best 2002-2020)
I'd like to reiterate the final bullet. Kyle Hendricks has the 32nd best first pitch strike percentage from all pitchers since 2002. Hendricks throws strikes early in the count, getting ahead of batters at a rate among the best in the league. He also generates a low swing percentage on the first pitch, not allowing hitters to ambush.
The phrase "throw strikes and good things happen" is one that was drilled into every pitcher at the little league level. It also applies in the majors. Between Hendricks's ability to throw strikes often, throw strikes early, and clip the corners, it's no wonder that he's had some great success. Hitters can't sit there laying off pitches waiting for a grooved pitch to slam.
Kyle Hendricks presently throws 4 pitches. He threw a cutter early in his career, but stopped in 2016. Yes, the same year he became a Cy Young finalist. Essentially, he's become a different pitcher after his first two years in the league, and I'll be focusing on that modern era a bit more in trying to predict how to best hit him. Here's a look at pitch movement, usage, and velocity for his career:
Kyle Hendricks's four pitches are good, but not great. He doesn't have the extreme velocity or tight breaking action that other pitchers use to strike out hitters. Before we get too far, here's a close look at each of the four pitches he throws.
41% usage since 2016
His sinker is so slow that it is substantially gravitational, generates more whiffs/swing compared to other pitchers' sinkers, results in many more groundballs compared to other pitchers' sinkers and has less armside run than typical. -Brooks Baseball
On average, his Sinker will move 12 inches towards a RHB and drop 26 inches. League average horizontal movement is 15 inches and 22 inches drop -Baseball Savant
Hendricks's sinker is his primary pitch, and averages 87 mph. While it's the same velocity as his fastball, it has good horizonal movement, moving in on the hands of RHB and away from LHB. With a good 6 inches of horizontal movement, it can start by coming in right down the middle of the plate, but then clip the RHB inside edge of the strike zone.
28% usage since 2016
His change has below average velo and has a lot of backspin. -Brooks Baseball
Hendricks's Changeup will move 12 inches towards a RHB and drop 31 inches. League average is 13 inches horizontal and 31 inches drop. -Baseball Savant
Hendricks's changeup typically hits 79 mph and is usually thrown low. It comes in straight, and has late diving action. He usually throws it inside to right hand batters. Despite it being his nastiest looking pitch, all hitters have popped it for a .300 batting average since 2016 (the worst batting average allowed for all four of his pitches). He uses it often, nearly 30% of the time against all batters.
21% usage since 2016
His fourseam fastball comes in below hitting speed, generates more whiffs/swing compared to other pitchers' fourseamers, has some natural sinking action, results in somewhat more flyballs compared to other pitchers' fourseamers and has slightly less natural movement than typical. -Brooks Baseball
Hendricks's Fastball will move 6 inches towards a RHB and drop 20 inches. League average is 7 inches horizontal movement and 15 inches drop. -Baseball Savant
Hendricks's fastball comes in at 87-88 mph. It's a fairly straight flying pitch, and he can use it to attack all parts of the zone. He typically throws it a bit higher than his other pitches. He rarely throws it against RHB, opting to throw more sinkers in its place.
10% usage since 2016
His curve has an exceptional bite, comes in below hitting speed and has slight glove-side movement. -Brooks Baseball
Hendricks's Curveball moves 14 inches away from a RHB and drops 66 inches. League Average is 9 inches horizontal movement and 53 inches drop. -Baseball Savant
Hendricks's curve is his slowest pitch, coming in at just 74 mph. It has a very sharp vertical break that drops down very far. He can attack all parts of the strike zone with it, but it usually reaches the hitter down around the knees. He doesn't throw it down in the dirt as often as most other pitchers, and can hit the bottom outside corner against LHBs with it. He rarely uses it against RHB
The scouting report on trying to hit Hendricks is pretty simple. He's going to throw strikes and pitch low. All of his pitches have movement, both horizontal and vertical.
In terms of velocity, his two primary pitches come in at the same speed: his fastball and sinker both average 87 mph. The sinker drops a bit more than the fastball, and has a very late break. His off-speed pitches have similar break, but have a 5 mph speed difference. Overall, Hendricks's velocity ranges from 74 mph on the low end to 88 mph on the high. The slight differences in his four pitches makes it easier for him to slightly fool hitters and keep them off balance.
You can group Hendricks's pitches into two categories, his higher speed stuff and off-speed breaking balls. Here's how the two stack up.
It's one thing to have decent stuff, but it's another to use them correctly. Hendricks has to attack hitter's weaknesses to succeed. Hendricks will adjust his pitch usage depending on what type of hitter he is facing, as well as which time it is through the order. Here's how he does it.
Times Through The Order:
First time through the order, Hendricks "brings the heat." He throws more fastballs and sinkers. 70% chance of seeing those two pitches. The game plan changes slightly the second time through, with 10% more off-speed stuff. Essentially a 60% higher speed, then 40% off-speed. Third time through, just a few less sinkers. Not a super sophisticated plan, but just enough to help maintain a slight edge of unpredictability.
Kyle Hendricks also has unique game plans for both right handed hitters and left handed hitters. His use has evolved over time a bit as well. Kyle Hendricks relies on his sinker a lot more vs right handed hitters (62% use overall), but then uses his other three pitches against left handed hitters more often (just 18.6% sinker usage).
Despite his sinker being his primary pitch, he's used it surprisingly rarely against LHB. He's thrown it less against them each year.
Throws nearly four times as many fastballs as he would RHB.
Throws twice as many curves as he would RHB. LHB struggle to hit his curve, but he still only throws it 13% of the time against them.
5% more changeups than RHB, making it his second most used pitch against them. This is even though LHB have traditionally hit his changeup well.
LHB hit his changeup for the highest average by far, but slug his sinker proportionally higher
Throws triple the amount of sinkers as he would LHB.
Rarely throws his fastball against a RHB, even though he has had great results.
RHB hit his changeup best, both in terms of average and power.
I generated a chart that I used to draw the above conclusions. I charted out his statistics from Brooks since 2016, when he stopped using his cutter. Everything is broken down by year so you can see annual results. Outside of his sinker against LHB, he does not have any linear trends of pitch usage. He also doesn't have any linear results on an individual pitch annually. Some years, right handed batters have hit his fastball very well.
Count Based Tendencies:
As previously mentioned, Kyle Hendricks throws a lot of early strikes. He also mixes in all four of his pitches at relatively equal rates in 0-0, 1-1 and 0-1 counts. When behind, he will go to the fastball much more often, but neutralizes this by rarely being behind in the count. He will go changeup and curve a lot more often when he gets to two strikes.
To summarize Kyle Hendricks's game plan:
Left handed hitters get a more even mix of the four pitches. They'll see significantly more fastballs, but also more curves and changeups. Nearly 70% of the time they'll see either a fastball or changeup.
Right handed hitters get a sinker 62% of the time, and a changeup 24%. That means that just 14% of the time they'll see either a fastball or curve.
Hitters will see more velocity the first time through the order, then more off-speed stuff for later at bats.
Mix in more curves and changeups when ahead in the count, but will not exclusively throw sinkers and fastballs when behind.
Kyle Hendricks relies on several subtle physical tricks to maximize his deception. These tricks make it as difficult as possible for hitters to guess what pitch is coming based off of physical tells. Often times, hitters will try to guess what pitch is coming based off how the pitcher winds up, how he grips the baseball, and even how the ball spins as it approaches home plate. Hendricks has very minimal tells, maintaining a metaphorical poker face.
Kyle Hendricks has a windup that maximizes deception. He hides the ball well and for as long as possible. See this GIF of his motion. Notice how the ball stays hidden from the batter's vision for the maximum time possible: first in his glove, then behind his body, then behind his head. This gives the hitter less chance to see the grip and guess the pitch.
Another angle to help make it obvious.
Kyle Hendricks is quick to home plate. This helps shut down the running game, but also gives hitters less chance to read grips. I was unable to find stats and rankings for a pitcher's time to home plate. So instead I watched game footage from his wild card round start in 2020 and used a stopwatch to try and measure his windup time. Here's what I found:
Full windup: 1.1 seconds
Stretch: .8 seconds
Kyle Hendricks has a very consistent release point, not allowing hitters to guess what pitch is coming based off where he lets go of the pitch. He will release his changeup higher than other pitches, but the difference is three inches. Can you tell a three inch height difference from 60 and a half feet away?
Many hitters will watch the spinning laces on a pitched baseball to try and discern what pitch is coming. It's a clever trick if you can read the spin rate and direction. Unfortunately for hitters facing Kyle Hendricks, three of his four pitches spin at a similar way and rate. His curveball has a backspin and spins much more than the others, making it stand out. But the other three pitches all spin forward and to the left. His sinker spins slower than the changeup and fastball, but not slow enough to consistently read the difference and anticipate the movement in time.
Each of his pitches will spin the following times from hand to plate
Fastball: 14.1 revolutions
Sinker: 13.3 revolutions
Changeup: 16.2 revolutions
Curve: 24.6 revolutions
Kyle Hendricks has a consistent delivery that is challenging for hitters to read. It's very difficult to read what pitch is coming because of how Kyle Hendricks disguises which pitch is coming. He hides the ball during his windup, has a quicker than average windup, releases the ball at the same point, and spins the ball in similar ways. He has an excellent pitching "poker face" making it difficult for hitters to guess what's coming based off a physical tell.
Hendricks's pitches have developed over time. He's getting better as he ages, gaining more movement on his off speed stuff. This bodes well for future performance. I've pulled Brooks Baseball charts for Horizontal and Vertical movement:
Year over year:
His changeup has gained a few inches of both horizontal and vertical movement
His curve has picked up nearly 5 inches of vertical movement since 2016
Kyle Hendricks has been getting nastier as the years go on. He know how to throw his pitches, and is getting better at it. He's getting better with age. Not worse.
I started this article by trying to scout out how a hitter can hit Kyle Hendricks. That original idea fell apart as I've found that there are no glaring weaknesses in his approach to pitching. Yes, he doesn't have the best raw stuff. He doesn't light up the radar gun, and he doesn't have killer breaking pitches. What he does have is an ability to throw strikes consistently, excellent control of four solid pitches, and the skills to keep hitters guessing. He can throw his four pitchers to any type of hitter in any count, keeping hitters guessing. Kyle Hendricks knows how to consistently trick hitters into hitting ground balls nearly half the time they make contact. Force weak contact, and good things will happen.
I'll close by saying this, Kyle Hendricks is a borderline Hall of Famer. By most metrics, he's a Top 10 pitcher of this generation. I like his chances of being able to pitch well into his late 30s. If he has another really good 5-10 years, he could be in the conversation. He'll need some All Star appearances, more Cy Young prestige, and some better milestone stats for sure. But right now, he's flirting with the edge of the conversation. Not bad for a guy who can't hit 90 mph on the radar gun.