Wednesday, May 29, 2024
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Fantastic Four: The Mastery of Kyle Hendricks’s Opening Day Start

Photo Credit: Baseball Savant

The time is 6:10 PM and it’s bearably warm night at 80 degrees Fahrenheit. The wind calmly travels in from center field as the Sun reaches its last moments of glory, illuminating the sky in a chaotically beautiful orange hue. To the mound comes a sharp blue 28, serious as it has ever been approaching its first Opening Day start with the only new part of this experience being the abundant lack of fans in the audience. Other than that, everything is the same process as before: the repertoire between it and the catcher, loaded dugouts, and an opposing team taking slow, methodical swings.

So were the conditions for Kyle Hendricks’s first start of 2020, taking place on the Opening Day of July 24. Hendricks was used to this. He entered the game with 162 games started and 966 innings pitched, quite an impressive workload. The opposing team was the Milwaukee Brewers, a team that Hendricks had pitched 110.6666 innings against in the past. Hendricks built an impressive .274 wOBA and .299 xwOBA against them in the past. However, the Brewers were striking back with a lineup that posted a .342 wOBA and .341 xwOBA in 2019.

The result? A complete game from Hendricks, striking out nine, walking none, and giving up three hits (all to Orlando Arcia, the worst hitter from 2019 in that lineup). On its own, the game is a very impressive feat for Hendricks, a pitcher who’s established himself in the league already. But, even past an initial head-nod at the stat line, there’s a lot more to cover, not just with the entire start but in an extremely impressive part of it.

Fantastic Four Innings

Perhaps the best facet of Hendricks’s fantastic start was his first four innings. One which would pass relatively quickly, only facing 13 batters along the way. Along the way came one hit, no walks, and eight strikeouts. That’s right, eight strikeouts, enough to amass a 61.5 K%. Even from looking at it with no other context known, that’s an impressive line in such an amount of time.

Compared to Hendricks’s other starts, the K% and strikeouts through four were a feat that he had rarely done. He’s made 161 career starts through at least four innings, only four of which he has posted eight-or-more strikeouts in that span. Not only that, but he’s only had 21 of those after he finishes starting, with potential for over double those innings. In terms of K%, however, the feat becomes more impressive. His astounding 61.5 is the highest he’s ever recorded through four innings, with an August 2016 start coming in second. For whiff% and PAR, two stats heavily correlated to K%, the same highs occur at a whopping 54.2 and 66.7.

Not only was this impressive for Hendricks on his own, but it was also good in comparison with the rest of the league. To illustrate this, I’ll look at every game last season with at least 10 PA in the first four innings. To begin, only 133 of those results had eight-or-more strikeouts, only 6.7% of the search query. When looking at K%, it becomes astoundingly impressive, with only two being higher than Hendricks’s start, only 0.2% of the query.

If you haven’t noticed yet, the difference between how good he’s been with his strikeouts and K% is quite vast. The reason for this is simple: plate appearances. In these comparisons as well, the rate matters more than the amount. When digging deeper into plate appearances you get to pitches, something that takes this to a whole new level.

Throughout the first four innings, Hendricks had only thrown 48 pitches. Not only is this his lowest out of his eight or more strikeout stretches by 16 pitches, but it’s also his 19th lowest in his career. Against the league, it gets even better. Out of every pitcher to throw eight-or-more strikeouts after four innings, only two finished with less than 48 pitches, minimizing at 46. In one of those starts, however, Chris Paddack had given up two base hits to the Mets compared to Hendricks’s one.

The Finished Piece

There was great reason to be excited about what was coming next in Hendricks’s start after those four innings. Not only was it shaping up to be a career-high for him, but also for the league as a whole. So, how did it end? Well, the results shaped up to be much less impressive. Another five innings with only one strikeout resulted in the line presented in the introduction.

Now, while the following five innings were underwhelming, the final result was still a very good game for Hendricks. The game was Hendricks’s 10th nine-or-more strikeout game, being that in the second-highest amount of pitches. However, the pitch gap was small and he had the most innings pitched and total batters faced this start. The game also started his season with an impressive pitches/inning of 11.4. In terms of K%, whiff%, and PAR, he had the 23rd (30.0), 8th (33.9), and 25th (30.0) respectively.

One interesting thing from Hendricks’s start is how many whiffs he acquired compared to usual. It’s visible in where his start ranked compared to others, but also when looking at how many whiffs and called strikes he acquired compared to pitches swung at and takes. While his whiff% ranked 8th, his called strike% ranked 78th, a noteworthy and intriguing difference.

As I’ve established, this was a great and plausibly 90th percentile start for Hendricks despite the underwhelming final five innings. However, the start may not jump out immediately. So, how does it fare in comparison to a start in 2019? The start that many people dubbed “The Maddux”: a complete game in a mind-blowingly low 81 pitches against the St. Louis Cardinals.

Quiet Masterpiece vs Maddux

The start we’re comparing this to in question occurred on a May afternoon. The day in question is May 3. It was a good game for the Cubs overall, they beat one of their division rivals early in the season in a four-run deficit. However, the talk of the day was Hendricks himself. I’ve already filled in some details, but the start came with four hits against, three strikeouts, and no walks.

Immediately, a strong difference in strikeouts is visible. K%, whiff%, and PAR all back this up as well, with a difference of 20.0, 18.0, and 11.2 difference. That’s huge, given how strikeouts are a huge skill for pitchers. That shows, as well, in some of the game log statistics. His SIERA on the game was 5.25, quite poor and his 10th worst of the year. On the other hand, his SIERA on the quiet masterpiece was 1.95, the 10th best of his career.

That’s not taking away how hard it is to pitch Hendricks’s Maddux. It’s no easy feat to finish a complete game with 81 pitches, especially in 2019. The league-average pitches/inning in 2019 was 16.9, 7.9 lower than Hendricks’s. Using that, if an average pitcher finished a game with 81 pitches, they’d finish less than five innings in a game. That’s just over half of Hendricks’s game (53.3%)!

Hendricks has been able to live in his niche effectively. He lives with his outstanding barrel and walks suppression, being able to be very effective with a low K%. However, his starts showing what he can do with luck for his K% combined with his already present skills are things to marvel in. It’s likely that he won’t repeat this start consistently or maybe again in the shortened season, but the fact that it was able to be seen it during this time is nothing short of spectacular.

Steven Pappas

Hello! My name is Steven Pappas, and I'm a high school junior. I love to analyze and write about baseball data as a huge Chicago Cubs fan and lifelong follower of the sport. I use large databases such as Baseball Savant, basic coding knowledge in RStudio, and my inquisitive mindset to always scour the infinite data available. I really enjoy watching and following basketball and am a Chicago Bulls fan, actively going to their games at the United Center. I love the study of filmmaking, and it's a passion that I've begun to explore as a career opportunity. My favorite works come from the minds of Stanley Kubrick, Yorgos Lanthimos, Alejandro G. Iñárritu, the Coen brothers, and Wes Anderson. As a deft and passionate writer, I use my proficiency to create works from baseball data, for films, and my ideas in the form of short stories and little nuggets. I'm also a libertarian socialist in training and an active Greek Orthodox Christian.