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Deep Dive: Sutcliffe dives into Hendricks’ curveball

11 months agoLance Brozdowski

Kyle Hendricks, known for forcing hitters to make awkward contact against changeups and sinkers, has found his strikeout pitch against the Brewers this season.

On Opening Day, Hendricks struck out 9 Brewers en route to a dominant shutout and perhaps one of the best outings of his career. Flash forward to Saturday and Hendricks struck out 7 Brewers, 5 on fastballs and 2 on changeups. His pitch mix resembled a standard Hendricks’ start: 40% sinkers, 27% changeups, 23% four-seamers and 10% curveballs. The fourth pitch in his repertoire — his curveball — acted as an early count speed differential for hitters and a feature of Hendricks repertoire that Marquee Sports Network analyst Rick Sutcliffe believes has become a game-changer.

“He was an east-west guy when he first came over from Texas,” Sutcliffe said on Cubs Live! “The first thing he did at the beginning of 2019 was talk with pitching coach Tommy Hottovy about his curveball.”

This season has seen Hendricks throw his highest percentage of curveballs in his career. He has thrown the pitch 17% of the time to left-handed hitters and 14% of the time to right-handed hitters entering Saturday’s start. He modified the grip on the pitch during quarantine this season and the results have made the pitch a true put-away and early count option. 

The pitch also opens up the rest of Hendricks repertoire to be used more effectively. In 2019, Hendricks four-seam fastball to left-handed hitters routinely sat at the top or above the zone (heatmap). This season the pitch has actually crept more towards the middle of the plate (heatmap) as it tunnels better with his vertically breaking curveball that he locates down in the zone.

To Sutcliffe, the game changer has been the slight alteration in Hendricks’ grip, which has moved his index finger into a slight “spike” on the ball to create more rotation.

“I had a pretty good curveball back in the day,” Sutcliffe said. “In spring training, Tommy Hottovy showed me what he was doing with [Hendricks’ curveball], I started flipping [my curveball] around — it was better at 64 than it was at 34 … you take that index finger, you elevate it a little bit and what happens is you’re pulling with you middle finger and you’re pushing with the index finger, creating more spin.

“Before, with my curveball, that index finger was just kind of along for the ride.”

Hendricks’ stellar outing Saturday exercised his demons on the road this season. Although he has always been more effective at Wrigley Field in his career (2.58 ERA at home versus a 3.77 ERA on the road), this season in particular his numbers have deviated. He held a 2.27 ERA at home versus a 5.24 ERA on the road. His 7-plus innings of 2-run ball today will drive that number down as the Cubs snapped a 17-inning scoreless streak to take Hendricks out of the losing column. 

“Tommy Hottovy, Kyle Hendricks,” Sutcliffe said. “They’ve taken their game to another level.”

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