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Kyle Hendricks- Stats vs Context

By Matthew Kirkeby - 7 years ago in MLB News


The Mercurial Kyle Hendricks
Stats vs Context


Finishing the year with stats like a 2.13 ERA and a WHIP of 0.98 may give stat watchers the impression that Kyle Hendricks is one of the elite aces of the game.  While the verdict on that assertion is still to be determined, he gets those numbers in a very unique way.

What got him in the running for a Cy Young?

Most elite aces in the game of baseball have solid velocity (93-95mph + from a righty) and a respectable arsenal of 3 or 4 pitches that get elite swinging strike rates and/or elicit a high volume of ground balls.  Conversely, Kendricks is a right-hander who averages around 88mph, a subpar velocity as right-handed starters average about 91 mph on their fastballs.  Further, Hendricks really only has one pitch that rates as above average in his changeup, which he threw a career high 27.1% of the time.  So how does Hendricks put out a season that gets him in the top 3 for CY Young votes?

Command of Pitches

There are two answers, really.  The first is command.  Throwing a baseball exactly where you want it to go is very difficult, and the more you miss, the more you either throw balls, or give the hitters something easy to hit.  The quick explanation on command is the ability to put the ball where you want it with an above average success rate.  With a BB/9 % (walks issued per nine innings pitched) of only 2.08, Hendricks is clearly throwing strikes, but his ability to land them where the hitters are less likely to put good swing allows him to suppress his ERA as well.  Further, with a First Pitch strike rate of 68.9%, Hendricks was in the top tier of pitchers in baseball when it came to putting hitters in a compromising count. (Cyborg, Clayton Kershaw led all “pitchers” with a 69.8% first pitch strike rate).  This is particularly important because the more strikes and fewer balls a hitter has in any count, the less likely he is to get a hit.  Just as impactful is that he only elicited about 25% of hitters to swing at these first pitch strikes, upwards of 10% less than other elite first pitch strike throwers.  So does that represent a skill?  Maybe, but it also leads into the second answer.

Stats vs Context

The other answer pushes us into a common debate amongst sabermetricians:  Stats vs. Context.  One of the most important, yet infrequently discussed statistics for pitchers is FIP.  To explain FIP in simplistic terms, FIP a calculation of what a pitcher’s ERA SHOULD be, if he had a league average defense behind him and got league average luck on balls that are hit into play (as in a normal amount of outs per hits generated.)  Kyle Hendricks has a FIP of 3.20.  While still good, this is the numbers calling BS on Kyle Hendricks’ 2016 season ERA of 2.13.  Simply trusting the numbers will make you right more often than not, so you would be wise to assume some regression.  Projection systems have him more in the 3.20 to 3.40 ERA range this season, and with a non-spectacular career Strike out rate of 7.7 K/9, that seems a little more reasonable.

The context is that, while stats are right more often than not, there are things that they cannot adequately factor into their results.  The Cubs were above average defensively which improves Hendricks’ chances of beating those solid but less spectacular projections, and he beat his FIP by almost a full run in his rookie year of 2014.  Command is also a difficult thing to quantify, as walk rate is an imperfect way to measure it, so an elite level of command could be difficult to quantify. He wouldn’t be the first pitcher to defy the numbers for a long period of time, so it’s certainly feasible.

The Team Knows How to Use Him

Lastly, the Cubs seem to protect him a bit more than most elite starting pitchers, who typically pitch deep into games and easily pitch 220 innings or more in a full year.  Hendricks made 30 starts last year, but only amassed 190 innings.  While it’s fair to doubt he can hold up as well or as long as the game’s best, it’s also possible that the Cubs are keeping better watch over him and taking him out of better spots, an assertion I’m more likely to believe with possibly the MLB’s best coach in Joe Maddon calling the shots.

Kyle Hendricks vs The Numbers

There’s the argument for both sides, but what’s the answer?  Baseball is a game that correlates to numbers more than any other sport, so outright ignoring them leads to less accurate decisions, but context on those numbers leads to better conclusions. As for Kyle Hendricks, I can’t ignore the probability of regression.  Chances are, hitters will know that about his 68.9% first pitch strike percent and start swinging at those pitches more, which could be a bad thing for a guy with only one elite pitch and below average velocity.  However I also believe in the Cubs, they will put him in good positions to succeed and provide good support for him defensively and obviously offensively.

While I think a 3.20 ERA is an excellent outcome, I want a pitcher with more nasty in his arsenal, so a top 100 pick in fantasy leagues is too rich for my blood.  He probably has a high floor which is worth more in deep leagues (i.e. AL/NL only leagues or 15+ team leagues), but in a 10 or 12 team league, I want the sex appeal offered by a Jacob Degrom, Carlos Martinez, Zach Greinke, or even a Danny Duffy or a Danny Salazar, guys with electric stuff despite less reliable resumes.  Either way, “Kyle Hendricks vs. The Numbers” should provide an interesting storyline for the Cubs in 2017.


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