No one still quite understands how Kyle Hendricks does it. In his eight seasons so far in the majors, his fastball averages just 87.7 MPH (per FanGraphs), though the 31-year-old righty wields a career 3.12 ERA. That isn’t really supposed to happen. And it’s one thing to perform well with such low velocity, but Hendricks hasn’t just been skating by… pitching well. No, he’s been one of the top starters in the big leagues over the last 5-6 years, coming in at 12th in FanGraphs WAR from 2015-20. His 19.2 WAR in that span is better than the trio of Noah Syndergaard, Trevor Bauer and Jose Quintana, three pitchers that, if you asked me before I looked, I would’ve said without a doubt were better than Hendricks. The man has perfected his craft, and unlike most pitchers in the sport, he has done so without throwing hard.
Entering tonight’s game versus the Cubs — the rubber game of the current series and the deciding contest following a 5-2 win for the Braves on Friday, and a 13-4 victory for Chicago on Saturday — on ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball (7:08 PM, ET), the Braves will get their chance against Hendricks. And it might surprise you, especially after reading the paragraph above detailing just how great he is, but I really like this matchup for Atlanta’s lineup. And it’s not because the Braves got to Hendricks last time they faced each other, when Atlanta shutout the Cubs in 2019 after the offense broke out for seven runs from ten hits (2 HR) against the soft-tossing pitcher. And last-time-out numbers isn’t the greatest takeaway here anyways, given for his career Hendricks owns a 2.66 ERA in four starts and 23 2/3 innings versus the Braves. It goes a bit deeper than that.
For one, the Braves have uncharacteristically failed against velocity in 2021, more specifically four-seam fastballs. According to FanGraphs Pitch Value leaderboard, Atlanta ranks dead-last against the four-seamer as only Ronald Acuna Jr. (5.0), Pablo Sandoval (4.0) and Ozzie Albies (0.5) currently have positive ratings against the offering. But luckily, at least for the first couple of times through the lineup on Sunday, the Braves won’t have to worry about that, which is nice, because at a rate of 56.3%, Atlanta has been getting attacked with the heater more than any other team in the majors. Hendricks will likely go with what has worked for him so far this season, which is his sinker and changeup, two pitches that make up over 60% of his arsenal right now. He does throw a four-seamer nearly a quarter of the time, though primarily against left-handed hitters, and through two starts so far in 2021 it has gotten crushed for a .600 AVG. Hendricks may be good, but he’s not a wizard, and a straight fastball traveling at 86 MPH usually doesn’t work too well. With the Braves being pretty heavy on the right-handed side, and Hendricks throwing 46 of his 50 sinkers to righties, we should see a heavy dose of sinkers in Sunday’s outing.
But the offspeed pitch is what I think unlocks the potential for the Braves in this game. Despite the offering allowing a .273/.259/.636 slash-line this season, including his only homer allowed so far, Hendrick’s changeup has been his go-to for swings and misses. And that’s great for this Atlanta offense, because they have been loving the offspeed stuff.
Currently the Braves rank 11th-best versus the changeup, per Pitch Values. All of Freeman, Acuna, Marcell Ozuna, Ender Inciarte, Travis d’Arnaud and Pablo Sandoval have positive ratings against the offering, and though it’s obviously some very small samples here… the results have been about as good as you could ask for. Take a look at some of the most notable results…
Braves hitters vs. changeup (2021)
- Freddie Freeman — 13 PA, 176 wRC+
- Ronald Acuna — 8 PA, 248 wRC+
- Marcell Ozuna — 8 PA, 202 wRC+
- Ender Inciarte — 2 PA, 179 wRC+
Hendricks throws his changeup equally to both righties and lefties, and so far it appears his desired location for his offspeed is down and away against the former, and down and inside to the latter. If the trend continues regarding his pitch-mix, the Braves could do very well against Hendricks.
Of course this is just one aspect of the matchup, among numerous others that could sway the advantage to Hendricks. He hasn’t been this successful just because of one or two minor things, so I’m sure going into this start he’s fully aware how successful Atlanta’s hitters have been against the offspeed in 2021. But hopefully this is something the Braves can hone in on on Sunday. Either way, Atlanta needs a win.
2 thoughts on “Braves: This lineup has shown it can do damage versus Kyle Hendricks”
This post certainly was prescient – 6 runs in the first inning
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