Chicago Cubs: Hendricks, Wood examples why velocity isn’t everything

Aug 30, 2016; Chicago, IL, USA; Chicago Cubs starting pitcher Kyle Hendricks (28) throws against the Pittsburgh Pirates during the first inning at Wrigley Field. Mandatory Credit: David Banks-USA TODAY Sports
Aug 30, 2016; Chicago, IL, USA; Chicago Cubs starting pitcher Kyle Hendricks (28) throws against the Pittsburgh Pirates during the first inning at Wrigley Field. Mandatory Credit: David Banks-USA TODAY Sports /

When scouts look at pitchers nowadays, they look for a big fastball. Someone who can bring it into the mid to high 90’s with a feel for pitching. It wasn’t always like this. Only a few years ago, pitchers would get drafted who didn’t have the overpowering fastball, but had a feel for pitching.

Look at Chicago Cubs pitchers Kyle Hendricks and Travis Wood, two guys who are both having great campaigns for the red-hot Cubs, while both only sit in the high 80’s with their fastball.

If you look around the big leagues at Cy Young candidates, you’re going to find guys like Mets ace Noah Syndergaard, who possesses a powerful fastball that can touch triple digits. Or crafty lefty Madison Bumgarner from the Giants, who sit in the low 90’s with a very deceptive delivery and wipe out slider.

Fastball Velocity isn’t everything

Then there’s the Cubs’ Kyle Hendricks. He’s put his name into Cy Young talk after a stellar season so far. But he isn’t the typical power guy who you think would be leading the National League in ERA. Hendricks boasts a two seam and four seam fastball that typically sits around 87mph, and a couple very effective off-speed pitches. But the way he gets outs is by locating. Hendricks doesn’t have the type of eye-popping strikeout numbers that most Cy Young hopefuls have. When he locates the fastball, along with the movement it has, he gets hitters to drive the ball into the ground thanks to the sink of the fastball down in the zone.

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Nowadays, most pitchers are trying to blow the fastball by everyone. But one thing was proven; big league hitters can hit a fastball. Doesn’t matter how hard it is. Well, unless it’s over 100mph, then it gets difficult. When a guy can locate his pitches and throw all four pitches for strikes, that makes it a lot more difficult for hitters than a guy who only has a fastball.

This has been the case for Hendricks. After another stellar outing last night against the Pirates,  catcher Miguel Montero told CSN Chicago how easy it’s been to catch for Kyle.

“It’s all about location,” Montero said. “Nowadays, everybody’s just trying to overpower everybody (else) and they forget about the secondary stuff.”

“He knows he doesn’t throw as hard, but he locates the fastball. He’s able to locate the secondary stuff and  works the edges. He worked the corners, and that’s actually even harder to hit than 97 (mph) down the middle. Even if you know the fastball’s coming, or the changeup’s coming, (when he executes the) pitch, you can’t do much with it.”

The combination of fastball movement and the ability to locate all his pitches could land Hendricks in a Cy Young award after the season.

Then there’s Cubs reliever Travis Wood. Travis currently holds a 3.04 ERA this season out of the bullpen. Wood is what we call a crafty lefty. He barely touches 90 with the heater, but just like Hendricks, has several pitches that he can locate at any given time.

Wood spent a couple of years in the starting rotation for the Cubs, including earning a spot on the National League All-Star team in 2013, but then struggled in 2014 and 2015 to stay in the rotation. Wood has been working out of the bullpen, where he’s done quite well. Through 53 innings pitch this season, opposing hitters only have a .214 average.

Wood possesses a six-pitch repertoire, throwing a slider, curveball, changeup, and three different fastballs. This is another example of why velocity isn’t the be all to end all. He tops out about 92, which is by no means overpowering. But the array of pitches he has is what proves to be effective.

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My point is that fastball velocity isn’t what matters in the big leagues. Sure, maybe in the minors, you can get away with pumping fastballs one after another. But when it comes to major league hitters, changing speeds and locating your pitches is so vital.  That’s exactly what these two Cubbies have done all season.

Kyle Hendricks could be in line for a Cy Young if he keeps it up. Travis Wood will continue to be an important lefty specialist out of the pen as we inch closer and closer to playoff baseball.