While it was a different method, we had just about as much fun watching Kyle Hendricks in 2016 as we did Jake Arrieta in 2015. Mostly because you could see hitters being totally frustrated, whereas Arrieta had just left them completely helpless. They were sure they were supposed to be doing better against Hendricks, and they just couldn’t. Or didn’t. It was rafts of easy 0-for-3s. And Hendricks danced himself into Cy contention.
Of course, the whole season for Hendricks came with a stat-head debate, which never get annoying at all, over whether it was real or not. Was he a product of not just his own skill but of luck and the defense behind him? Or was the soft-contact he kept inducing benefitting his defense more than the other way around? Generally, the answer is probably always both when you’re having this discussion, but that’s never good enough for everyone.
So what is “real?” How do you define “real?” And what does that mean for 2017?
The first thing any Hendricks-denier, if such a thing exists, would point to is the major drop in Hendricks’s BABIP and the rise in his left-on-base percentage. Ah, but this isn’t so simply has going down 46 points in BABIP. Because as I pointed out at BP in my Jon Lester post, four of the Cubs’ five starters saw a major drop in their BABIP, which you’d have to attribute to the defense behind them which we know was historically good. The one who didn’t, Jake Arrieta, had a .246 BABIP from 2015 so a major drop from him would have seen something completely mutated and probably not of this world.
When you lead the league in soft-contact percentage, as Hendricks did last season, you’re going to have a lower BABIP. Maybe a .252 is pushing it a tad but not by all that much.
So the left-on-base percentage. Well, the thing is Hendricks gave up 20 less hits in 10 more innings in 2016 than he did in 2015. So quite simply, there were less runners, less runners to bunch. This is a little rough, but Hendricks had 22 less plate appearances against him last season with runners on base at all than he did in 2015. He also had 22 less PAs against him in ’16 with runners in scoring position than he did the year before. Less runners in scoring position, more on first alone, and you’re going to strand more runners than you did before. Especially when you’re not giving up any extra-base hits to move runners more than one base at a time.
So pivoting forward, while luck certainly played some small role in his 2016, a lot of this is repeatable given a clean bill of health or non-weird things happening.
What people sometimes miss is that Hendricks has a pretty glowing 10.1% swinging-strike rate last year, a rise of 25% from the year before. That would put him in the top-30 in the majors. So it isn’t just depending on his infielders. And there’s no reason to think Hendricks won’t get the same movement on his pitches that caused all those whiffs. His sinker and change both saw increased movement from his first to second year in the majors. Because he’s not relying on velocity and he’s only 27, these things shouldn’t change.
One thing we should watch is how Hendricks does against lefties. In 2015 it was something of a struggle, and he was able to improve greatly in 2016. He did it by throwing more fastballs at them and relying less on his sinker/cutter. Hitters are going to look for that this season you’d have to think. Whether they can do anything about it is another question. And he did this by not being afraid to go inside. Check out his use of his fastball against lefties between ’15 and ’16:
The thing is if Hendricks can hit both sides of the plate with his sinker, then I don’t know what hitters are going to be able to do. Perhaps injuries in the infield, like Russell’s back problems, that keeps Zobrist at second instead of Baez during his starts will hurt him a little. I don’t know. He probably won’t get an ERA as low as the one near 2.00 last year, but I don’t see him going much above 3.00 either.