Deep Dive: Class is in session with Professor Hendricks
Two days before Game 6, Jon Lester threw 7 innings of 1-run baseball to put the Cubs up 3-2 in the series. His performance, in tandem with his Game 1 outing, would eventually earn him the NLCS MVP. He did it by doubling down on a tendency of his that emerged during the 2016 regular season: throwing even more fastballs. (Read our deep dive from Game 5 here.)
Another fastball specialist took the mound for the Cubs in Game 6: Kyle Hendricks.
Organizations maximizing spin rate and spin efficiency are common development goals in the modern era of baseball. But Hendricks’ ability to kill spin on his pitches is what makes him so successful. Among 120 pitchers with over 100 sinkers thrown in 2016, Hendricks had the 13th lowest average spin rate on his sinker at 1,962 rpm.
Because the intended movement of Hendricks’ sinker is to tail down and away from a left-handed hitter, having less spin on the pitch allows it to drop more by creating less resistance against the forces of gravity that naturally push the ball towards the ground (the axis of spin also matters). This allowed Hendricks to generate more ground-ball outs on his sinker than any of his other pitches in his Game 6 outing.
Hendricks also has exceptional command, nearly 20 percent better than league average heading into the 2020 season by one metric. It allows him to survive despite velocity well below the norm.
Late in 2016, it also looked like he made some changes to his four-seam fastball. The horizontal movement on his four-seamer during one regular season start in October 2016 jumped from his career average of -2 inches all the way to 0 inches, according to Brooks Baseball. This implies Hendricks may have been adding a little bit of cut to his four-seamer (or movement into the hands of left-handed hitters) for a batch of starts.
MLB Gameday and Baseball Savant even classified the pitch as a cutter for all of his playoff starts, while Fangraphs and Brooks Baseball only show Hendricks as throwing a cutter in 2014 and 2015. This could be simply a blip on the radar, but it could also have been a deliberate change to try and make the pitch more effective versus left-handed heavy lineups.
While a pitcher like Lester has changed his stripes after the Cubs’ 2016 run for the ring, Hendricks has remained remarkably consistent apart from this small change to his four-seam fastball. The only slight deviation came with some added usage of his secondary pitches in 2019, something a variety of pitchers have adopted. With Hendricks’ command, he has been able to hold his walk rate steady even by utilizing pitches that are inherently more difficult to command.
The Professor’s final line in Game 6 was 7.1 innings, with 2 baserunners, 6 strikeouts and a clear record otherwise. It only took him 81 pitches to get through 23 batters before Cubs manager Joe Maddon pulled Hendricks in favor of Aroldis Chapman. The lefty fireballer closed out the game with five outs of his own.
And the Cubs were off to the World Series thanks to back-to-back dominant performances from Hendricks and Lester.
- Seth Manness (Cardinals reliever from 2013 to 2016) had the lowest average spin rate on his sinker at 1,844 in 2016. The ambidextrous reliever Pat Venditte had the highest at 2,485 rpm in 2016.