If you listen to or read scouting reports on Kyle Hendricks you are bound to be underwhelmed. Here is what Keith Law said about him shortly after the Cubs completed the deadline deal two years ago,
Hendricks is more of an organizational starter, 87-89 mph with an average cutter and changeup and below-average curveball but good command and a repeatable delivery and arm action. The right-hander could surface as a fifth starter, but his stuff is probably too fringy for that.
This is not atypical. My scouting contacts have said something very similar, albeit a bit more optimistic than “organizational starter”. The point is that Hendricks isn’t the kind of guy that makes organizational top 10 lists. He wasn’t even making the Rangers top 30 lists at the time of the deal.
Looking for answers I started looking back at my notes. Found some interesting stuff where I got some tips from a talent evaluator. I had asked advice on how to evaluate pitchers. He gave me a lot of pointers, including something I did not consider until then…
Don’t forget to watch the hitters when you are scouting a pitcher. A lot of times you can look at them and they will provide clues by how they react to pitches. If a guy has a really good breaking ball you might see the hitter flinch. If hitters are swinging through fastballs the pitcher probably has good deception.
But that doesn’t quite work either. Hendricks breaking ball doesn’t buckle anybody knees and he doesn’t get a whole lot of swings and misses. He doesn’t add much deception, if any, with his delivery. It’s pretty straightforward and simple, in fact. It’s been 12 starts and frankly, I haven’t seen a whole lot of bad swings.
And so I kept reading in search of an answer, There was also this…
There are a lot of things I consider beyond pure velocity. First, I look at the pitcher’s body and arm action. If he’s a young pitcher, is he projectable — does he have room to add weight, strength, and velocity? Is the pitcher a good athlete? Can he repeat his delivery? Does he do it easily? Is there deception in the delivery?
The arm action on Hendricks features the fundamentally sound “L” position and as Law mentioned, it is perfectly fine. His body is lean but he isn’t someone you would call athletic. He isn’t projectable. He is a physically mature 24 year old. He isn’t going to gain natural strength or velocity and we’ve already talked about the lack of deception in his delivery.
But he can repeat that delivery. There is that. Now we’ve got something to build on. Most of the time we associate the ability to repeat a delivery with athleticism. But that is not the case with Hendricks. He is not the athlete that Travis Wood, Jeff Samardzija, or Edwin Jackson is. He is not as athletic as Jake Arrieta, Eric Jokisch, Tsuyoshi Wada, or Jacob Turner either.
So how does he do it?
Well, the world of sports is filled with players who get by with less than ideal athleticism. It’s a matter of adapting. In Hendricks case, the simplicity we spoke of is what helps him repeat his delivery. A lot of times when a big league pitcher lacks great velocity, he will make up for it with a deceptive delivery. We see this with Tsuyoshi Wada, for example. But the more complex the delivery, the more athleticism required to repeat it. So how does Hendricks adapt? He does the opposite. He goes with a simple delivery. The reason is self-evident. Simple is a lot easier to repeat.
Okay, fine He has a simple, repeatable delivery. So what does a repeatable delivery do for a pitcher?
Quite simply it allows him to command his pitches better, Consistency with his arm slot, release point, landing point, etc leads to consistency with his location. And understand how important that is for Hendricks. It’s not enough for him to just throw strikes. He has to throw pitchers strikes. His stuff isn’t good enough to work the middle of the plate. He isn’t going to miss a lot of bats, but he has to at least miss those sweet spots. When you can’t do it with sheer movement or velocity, it takes great command and precision.
So we have that ability to locate with precision. But Hendricks isn’t the only pitcher in baseball who can do that and most of them have better stuff than he does. They have better natural physical ability, both in their ability to throw hard and to spin a breaking ball.
Again, Hendricks adapts. If he can’t beat hitters physically, he will beat them mentally.
Now let’s go back to what the scout told me earlier…
Don’t forget to watch the hitters…
Except now I am reading this same sentence from a different perspective. I am reading it from Hendricks perspective. Nobody studies hitters better than Hendricks. His game preparation involves using all the information available to him, finding out hitter’s weaknesses, constructing a game plan around those weaknesses, and then using that great command to execute that plan mercilessly. It’s almost like a chess game.
And as we worried about Hendricks being at a greater disadvantage as he faced more physically gifted hitters as he moved up, we forgot to consider that the amount of information on those hitters also increases. At the MLB level, especially with such an information-driven organization such as the Cubs, there is a plethora of information waiting to be read. So while hitters get better, Kyle Hendricks just keeps getting smarter.
So now I go back to the scouting advice and zero in on this part….
If he’s a young pitcher, is he projectable — does he have room to add…?
I cut off the rest of the sentence because it is irrelevant in this case. We have already said Hendricks doesn’t project physically. What we may have underestimated is that the MLB environment gave him an opportunity to project from a mental standpoint. Obviously Hendricks wasn’t done growing as a pitcher, but that improvement is from the neck up rather than the neck down. But MLB hitters aren’t dumb, they can play chess too. To keep his mental edge, Hendricks strategy has to be sound, yet subtle enough to where the opponent can’t read his intentions so easily.
This make me think back about this earlier question from the scout from a different point of view…
Is there deception in the delivery?
Maybe not in his physical delivery, but when it comes to delivering the game plan he always seems to be a step ahead of the hitter. You can’t always deceive with your delivery, but you can deceive with sequencing and location. In that sense, there most certainly is some deception to Hendricks.
We can go back to Law’s scouting report and much of it still holds true. The last sentence hedges a bit, “Hendricks stuff is probably too fringy”. Perhaps there are some answers there as Hendricks has changed that equation a bit since Law wrote that. There has been some improvement with his cutter and his change-up, both of which may now be a tick above average. I would even go so far as to call that change-up plus.
But even taking that into account, Law, like many scouts, may have underestimated the impact of the mental side of Hendricks game. It certainly seems like hitters do it. Cubs color commentator Jim Deshaies called Hendricks, “a comfortable 0-fer”. What he means is that hitters are getting good looks at Hendricks. They’re not getting fooled, they’re making contact, they think they’re doing reasonably well — yet when they look at their post game stat line they find that it reads o for 4.
Looking at it again, maybe I am still not right about those words,
“Don’t forget to watch the hitters…”
Maybe we should be watching them after their at-bat is over because when we watch those hitters walk away, it seems like they can’t quite figure out how what just happened. You can almost see their eyes open wide as the pitch approaches, as they take that big swing against that fringy stuff, as if squaring up and depositing the baseball into bleachers is an inevitability. And then, when all is said and done, as they walk head down back to the dugout, I’d like to think that hitters hear Hendricks voice in their heads saying this,
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