The Chicago Cubs’ #1 starting pitcher, Kyle Hendricks, posted a vintage performance in Sunday’s 5-1 victory over the Detroit Tigers. The “Professor” allowed just one run on eight hits with eight strikeouts in 8.0 IP. According to Jordan Bastian of MLB.com, seven of these strikeouts were called strikeouts (a/k/a “backwards Ks”), the most by any MLB pitcher in 2021.
Kyle Hendricks' final line: 8+ IP, 8 H, 1 R/ER, 0 BB, 8 K. A career-high 30 called strikes in his 105-pitch outing. And the most called strikeouts (7) by a pitcher in MLB this season.
— Jordan Bastian (@MLBastian) May 16, 2021
This type of outing would have been just another day at the office for Hendricks in past years. However, the Cubs stalwart has been maddeningly inconsistent this season. His ERA was 6.23 on a 6.64 FIP entering action on Sunday. The eight-inning gem reduced that number by over one run, to 5.27. Hendricks has not posted an ERA over 4.00 for his entire MLB career. His highest was 3.95 in 2015, which he followed up with an MLB-best 2.13 in the regular season leading up to the Cubs’ 2016 championship run. If Hendricks wants to continue his track record of dependability, he will need to need to string together multiple quality starts.
In 2021, Hendricks has yet to put together back-to-back quality starts. His good outings have been sandwiched in between stinkers in such a way that you could call his 2021 season consistently inconsistent. Let’s take a look at his 2021 pitching log.
April 1 vs. PIT: 3.0 IP; 4 H; 3 ER; 3 BB; 4 K; 1 HR; 0 HBP
April 7 vs. MIL : 6.0 IP; 4 H; 0 ER; 1 BB; 6 K; 0 HR ; 0 HBP (quality start)
April 18 vs. ATL: 4.0 IP; 7 H; 7 ER; 3 BB; 2 K; 4 HR; 1 HBP
April 23 vs. MIL: 6.0 IP; 6 H; 2 ER; 1 BB; 6 K; 2 HR; 1 HBP (quality start)
April 28 vs. ATL: 3.2 IP; 11 H; 7 ER; 0 BB; 3 K; 3 HR; 0 HBP
May 4 vs. LAD: 7.0 IP; 7 H; 1 ER; 1 BB; 6 K; 1 HR; 1 HBP (quality start)
May 9 vs. PIT: 5.0 IP; 9 H; 6 R; 4 ER; 1 BB; 3 K; 0 HR; 0 HBP
May 16 vs. DET: 8.0 IP; 8 H; 1 ER; 0 BB; 8 K; 0 HR; 0 HBP (quality start)
So far, each bad outing is followed by a quality start. This means you could expect Hendricks’ next start to be poor yet again. There has been some discussion about Hendricks getting hammered because he is tipping his pitches. If that is the case, it would seem that Pittsburgh and Atlanta have cracked the code, while Milwaukee, Los Angeles and Detroit have not. I am skeptical of the tipping pitches explanation because MLB insiders said Yu Darvish was tipping his pitches in the 2017 World Series, and then it turned out his opponents were just plain cheating. We have also previously seen Hendricks struggle with getting knocked around in the first inning before settling in. This was enough of an issue early in 2019 that I discussed the possibility of using an opener for Hendricks in a post for Cubs Insider. His first inning still remains his worst, with a 4.77 career 1st inning ERA as of Sunday.
I believe this tendency has simply been exacerbated this year and Hendricks has struggled with the location and movement of his bread-and-butter pitches. A finesse pitcher like Hendricks is especially dependent on location and break to get hitters off balance and induce weak contact. When his pitches are flat and left hanging in the middle of the zone, they will get crushed by major league hitters.
While Hendricks has gotten off to a very poor start, he has proven his ability to make the appropriate adjustments. I expect him to be able to right the ship. He unfortunately has dug himself a deep hole to start the year. This means he will have to be especially good from here on out to lead a suspect Cubs pitching staff to a winning season.
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