Though a 55-70 record would normally indicate otherwise, the Chicago Cubs have a lot to be happy about these days. Anthony Rizzo is contending for a home run title, Starlin Castro has reestablished himself at the plate, Javier Baez‘s bat speed is all sorts of ridiculous and Kris Bryant, Jorge Soler, Albert Almora, Addison Russell and Kyle Schwarber (among others) comprise possibly the best farm system baseball has ever seen from a positional vantage point.
But what about on the mound? Indeed, the Cubs are thin with respect to high-ceiling arms in the minors (outside of C.J. Edwards and Arodys Vizcaino). Though that’s okay for the time being given the progression of Jake Arrieta, whose FIP- of 61 this season ranks third best among pitchers with at least 100 innings (behind Felix Hernandez and Clayton Kershaw). Yet question marks remain surrounding the unproductive Travis Wood and unsolvable enigma that is Edwin Jackson — two pitchers who won’t become free agents until 2017.
Fortunately for Chicago, Kyle Hendricks has stepped forward to help balance out one of baseball’s most uneven rotations. Acquired in the deal that sent Ryan Dempster to Texas two summers ago, Hendricks has over seven starts (48 IP) this summer pitched to a 1.48 ERA and 0.95 WHIP, which rank fourth and twelfth-best among qualifying starters since his July 10 debut. That’s some pretty fantastic production for a guy who authored an underwhelming 3.59 ERA and 1.18 WHIP in 17 starts in the Pacific Coast League prior to his call-up.
How has Hendricks accomplished this level of productivity? His sinker has been lethal in several respects.
Going to his sinker more than any other offering (it makes up 39.2% of his entire arsenal) since his promotion early last month, Hendricks’ sinker has been elite with respect to inducing weakly hit balls in play. In fact, the .533 soft-hit average the offering has produced bests any other qualifying pitcher since July 10, and is significantly higher than the major-league average of .351 this season. Both right-handed batters (.548 SHAV) and left-handed batters (.500 SHAV) have struggled to place quality contact on the offering.
Additionally, opponents have shown a tendency to expand the zone against it, posting a chase rate of 31.7% that ranks better than approximately 80% of the league this season. Right-handed batters have been particularly susceptible in this respect, offering at 39.2% of his sinkers when located out of the zone (compared to lefties’ 21.1%). Consequently, opponents have slugged just .267 against it (nearly .200 points lower than average) and are just 3-for-22 against it in pitchers counts.
Hendricks has never been known to collect copious strikeout totals as a starter in the minors, as we’ve seen that translate to his first seven starts at the big league level, maintaining a K-BB% of just 9.6% (league average is 12.5%). Thus, fielder-independent pitching isn’t a huge fan of his overall production (his current FIP is 3.55, nearly two runs above his season ERA). But so far, Hendricks has been able to get by through effective use of his sinker, which has expanded zones and induced elite amounts of soft contact.
Question is, how much longer will that pitch-to-contact success last?