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Kyle Hendricks’s greatness is about more than control and command

His velocity-less success depends on the movement, too.

MLB: Chicago Cubs at St. Louis Cardinals Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

Kyle Hendricks’s velocity (or lack thereof) makes him perplexing to many around the baseball world. The righthander has been pegged as a control-and-command pitcher because of it. It’s a label that doesn’t come with a lot of panache, and is often associated with poor performers at the back ends of rotations. That’s not exactly how I’d describe Hendricks.

After posting a Cy Young campaign in 2016, the beginning of his 2017 was mired in injury issues. That resulted in early performance issues and just 139 and 23 innings pitched this season. Still, for a bit of a down year, Hendricks pitched extremely well. His career high in DRA came this season but was still just 3.31, along with a career high in FIP at 3.88. Normalizing for 200 innings, he would have posted a 3.6 fWAR over the year, along with a 5.0 pWARP and a 6.0 RA9-WAR. His second half numbers, which are all post-injury, show a pitcher reminiscent of the Cy Young-winner of last season.

Kyle Hendricks Season Half Comparison

Season Half IP ERA FIP K% BB% HR/FB Hard%
Season Half IP ERA FIP K% BB% HR/FB Hard%
First Half 61.2 4.02 4.52 20.2% 8.3% 17.6% 36.3%
Second Half 78.0 2.19 3.38 22.7% 6.0% 12.5% 25.7%

Unlike for many pitchers returning from injury, however, Hendricks’s rediscovered success had nothing to do with a stronger arm. Despite his top-tier performance in the second half, he just posted his season high in velocity with a 90.5 mph sinker in game 1 of the NLDS.

A big driver of Hendricks’s abilities is his two-seamer with extreme movement. Throwing it at a frequency of over 42 percent, it generated strikes 34.46 percent of the time. It’s no wonder when you look at the movement below.

This is called a “laminar two seamer,” which Alan Nathan went into detail on in years past and this video details in a more succinct fashion. This is because the ball uses the smooth side of the ball to direct the movement of the pitch. Using the physics advantage, Hendricks has juiced the most movement he can on the pitch.

His out-pitch, the change up, is a direct beneficiary of this. Hendricks’ changeup moves similarly to his two seamer.

Kyle Hendricks Movement Comparison

Pitch Avg Velocity HMov VMov
Pitch Avg Velocity HMov VMov
Two Seamer 86.21 -6.33 6.13
Changeup 79.18 -5.06 6.54
Brooks Baseball

Their similarity provides him with a deception factor when thrown as a tunnel pair, which he’s done 75 times this season. The SI|CH pair can be seen in this sequence.

His 0.16 release:tunnel ratio was good for sixth in all of baseball with the pair this season. The smaller the ratio, the harder it is for hitters to distinguish between the pitches. Thus, the changeup has generated a whiff rate of over 17 percent, which is second to his FA|CH pair at over 20 percent.

Hendricks has always been known as an intelligent pitcher. (You may not have heard, but he is a Dartmouth grad after all.) His intelligence is clear on the mound in how he manufactures movement on his pitches and uses deception to maximize its effects.

Anthony Rescan is a Featured Writer at Beyond the Box Score and a Stats Intern at Baseball Prospectus. You can follow him on Twitter at @AnthonyRescan.