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Should we credit Kyle Hendricks for being clutch?

In a tight race for the NL Cy Young, the Cubs righty has separated himself by leaving a boatload of runners on base. Should that make him the winner?

Chicago Cubs v St Louis Cardinals
[witty caption comparing Hendricks’s changeup velocity to slow motion]
Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

Does Kyle Hendricks fascinate you like he fascinates me? If not, he should. Not too many pitchers will fly through the minors as an eighth-round draft pick. Not too many pitchers will survive in the majors, much less thrive, with a fastball that rarely strays above 90 mph. And not too many pitchers who debut at age 24 will make their way, in just two short years, to the short list for the National League Cy Young. In other words, Hendricks is a singularly awesome pitcher.

But does the Cubs righty deserve to take home the Cy Young award? It depends. If you look solely at results, you can make a persuasive case for Hendricks. By ERA-, he’s been 50 percent better than average this season, which makes him the best pitcher in the NL. Teammate Jon Lester is the fairly distant runner-up, with an ERA- of 57. Last year, Hendricks put up a subpar (by definition) 101 ERA-; this year, he’s cut that in half — and inflated his Cy Young chances.

On the flipside, Hendricks shouldn’t come close to the hardware based on the three true outcomes. In terms of FIP-, he’s pitched at a level merely 21 percent better than average. That moves him back to sixth in the Senior Circuit, behind Noah Syndergaard, Jose Fernandez, Max Scherzer, Johnny Cueto, and Jon Gray. Compared to his 86 FIP- from 2015, he hasn’t improved by enough to receive the honor.

The thing about ERA and FIP, though, is that sometimes the latter just won’t match the former. Most of the time, pitchers with a low BABIP and high strand rate have simply been lucky, and they’ll regress toward the mean in the future. Some pitchers break that rule however, and Hendricks appears to be one of them.

This season, Hendricks has tallied a BABIP of .242 and a strand rate of 82.3 percent, ranking a respective third and second in the NL in those regards. Yesterday at FanGraphs, Craig Edwards broke down his success with limiting hard contact, so I want to narrow in on the clutch pitching, as the title of this post indicates. Somehow, Hendricks has prevented runs from scoring, despite putting a fair amount of men on base. How?

Here’s a fun stat. Last year, Hendricks allowed a .277 wOBA with the bases empty, and a .329 wOBA with runners on. This year, he’s allowed a .273 wOBA with the bases empty — and a .209 wOBA with runners on. That last figure blows everyone else in the NL out of the water, and it looks legitimate, too:

Situation K% uBB% BABIP HR% Soft% Popup%
BE 22.9% 6.1% .250 2.8% 23.4% 1.2%
MoB 23.3% 5.2% .226 0.8% 30.1% 6.9%

In 2016, Hendricks has struck out more batters, walked fewer, and generated a lot more weak contact when under pressure. This has depressed his wOBA with runners on, subsequently earning himself an elite ERA.

Not enough evidence for you? Let’s dive even deeper. With Hendricks, everything circles back to the changeup. He’s thrown the best change in the NL this year, according to FanGraphs’ Pitch Type Linear Weights. It’s the primary reason he’s suppressed solid contact so effectively, and it gets way more whiffs than anything else in his arsenal. Given all of that, no one should find this surprising:

Situation Sinker Changeup Cutter Curve Fourseam
BE 45.8% 24.0% 18.1% 7.6% 4.5%
MoB 46.0% 33.2% 11.7% 7.8% 1.4%

Hendricks likes to use the cambio to wiggle out of a jam. And those changeups aren’t all the same, either — once someone’s reached base, he switches his location of the pitch as well:

Per Brooks Baseball, Hendricks gets a lot of swings-and-misses — and a ton of popups — when he puts the changeup in the lower part of the strike zone. Because he’s both upped his usage and shifted his location of the changeup with runners on, he’s dominated in those situations.

An obvious question follows from this: Why doesn’t Hendricks just throw his changeup that often, and in that location, with the bases empty? My only theory is that he doesn’t want to become too predictable; he knows that this strategy can blow hitters away, but if he implements it universally, opponents might catch on and adjust. Whatever the reason, that strand rate — and the ERA it’s begot — speaks for itself.

This doesn’t mean that Hendricks should win the Cy Young, necessarily. (I think he should, simply because of this suave play alone, but I doubt the BBWAA will send me a ballot.) It does mean that we shouldn’t write off his low ERA as a fluke and give the award to Thor. Hendricks has a different approach with runners on base, meaning he’s earned the title of “clutch” by discernibly changing his approach when required. Whether he keeps it up beyond this year, we’ll have to see. For the award voting, though, it’s just 2016 that concerns us, and here and now, no one strands runners quite like Hendricks.

. . .

All statistics as of Wednesday, September 21st.

Ryan Romano is a contributing editor for Beyond the Box Score. He also writes about the Orioles on Camden Depot and MASN Sports, and about the Brewers on BP Milwaukee.