Reigning NL ERA leader Kyle Hendricks has been missing something early this season. By certain indications, it’s his fastball velocity.
It seems like we’ve heard more about starting pitcher velocity in the first three weeks of the 2017 season than we did all of last year. Still, with several of the Chicago Cubs’ hurlers struggling, it’s a pertinent discussion to have.
One of those aforementioned struggling pitchers takes the ball for the Cubs in Tuesday’s tilt against the rival Pittsburgh Pirates. After rolling to a blowout win in the opener, Chicago is hoping their soft-tossing righty can find his mark after several sub-par outings.
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So far this season, Hendricks sports an unsightly 6.19 earned run average that pairs up with a 1.86 SO/BB ratio. In 16 innings, he’s surrendered 17 hits and 11 runs – a far cry from the performance that made him a National League Cy Young finalist in 2016.
"“That kind of has been my M.O., I’ve always been a slow starter,” he told the Chicago Tribune recently. “You don’t like to be that way and I’m always trying to combat that. But I felt good in spring and it just hasn’t transitioned yet. Staying with the process. I know what I have to do. I can feel a little better today. Just getting my velocity back up a little bit and trust it and hopefully it comes.”"
As the Tribune report indicates, Hendricks’ fastball velocity is one of the lowest in baseball. As a hurler who relies on his off speed pitches, namely his change-up, this is a key piece to the puzzle. Without a separation in velocity, there’s simply not as much deception in his repertoire.
And, given he throws in the high-80s on a good day, it’s important for Hendricks’ success.
"“When he gets back to 87-88 (mph) then you’re going to see that greater separation between the fastball and the changeup,” Maddon said. “There’s not a dramatic separation between the two pitches, and that’s where the disconnect for him is now.”"
Struggles commonplace for Hendricks? Relatively speaking
Hendricks told the Tribune he’s a ‘slow starter.’ We decided to go back and look at his first-month performance in his breakout season a year ago.
In 2016, he pitched to a 3.91 earned run average but featured a stellar 4.75 strikeout-to-walk ratio. As noted above, he’s been nowhere near that mark so far in 2017. The right-hander allowed three or more earned runs in two starts in April. This year, he’s a perfect 3-for-3 in allowing at least three earned.
Needless to say, that’s a discouraging sign.
Now, given his breakout campaign from 2016, it’s not realistic to expect Hendricks to replicate his performance. He may emerge as a quality front-line starter, but even peripherals suggest he benefited a great deal from the team’s historically solid defense behind him.
Even though that same defense plays behind him daily, a low-2.00 ERA cannot be the expectation. Count on a low-3.00 ERA and a roughly .500 record from Hendricks in the middle of the Cubs’ staff and you won’t be disappointed in 2017.