Dating back to beginning of 2011, Hendriks has put up two stellar seasons in the minor leagues, posting a 2.86 ERA with a 193/49 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 245.2 innings split between New Britain and Rochester. In 2011, the Twins named him their Minor League Pitcher of the Year. Based on those figures and accolades, expectations were high for him.
Naturally, that has not quite panned out so far at the major league level.
Heading into last night’s game righties were hitting .381/.426/.702 in 143 plate appearances. That is a remarkable batting line considering the rest of the league’s right-handed pitchers have subdued their same-sided brethren to the tune of .252/.308/.398. The magnitude of those power numbers is unprecedented. Think about that: right-handed opponents’ slugging percentage (.702) off Hendriks is just five points lower than the league’s overall OPS (.707) during righty-on-righty action.
What makes this case even more curious is that in the minors the past two seasons Hendriks handled righties just fine. According to MinorLeagueCentral.com’s splits, Hendriks limited right-handers to a .251/.288/.368 line over 518 match-ups since 2011. How is it that he managed to sidestep right-handers in AAA easy-peasy but is obliterated once he arrives to the majors?
One explanation as to why Hendriks may have an easier time retiring lefties over righties may have to do with his unique delivery and the challenges it presents. Hendriks has a closed delivery - which is that his front foot lands more towards the third base side and he throws across his body.
When facing left-handed batters, he will pepper the outer-half of the strike zone and (far too often this season) just off the plate to entice those hitters to swing at pitches away. Meanwhile, if he wants to pitch right-handers away (or lefties inside for that matter) he must throw across his entire body to reach the far side of the plate:
Because he is throwing across his body and trying to hit the pitcher’s glove side of the zone, he has seen his command wane when trying to hit the far side of the plate. In last night’s start against the Kansas City Royals, catcher Drew Butera would frequently set up on the pitcher’s glove side of the plate and present a target. The majority of those offerings did not wind up at the intended destination. For example, in their fifth inning showdown, with two strikes on him, Butera scheduled a fastball down and in on the left-handed hitting Alex Gordon. Rather than hitting this spot, his fastball went up and away. Fortunately Gordon was unable to hold up for strike three.
When it comes to right-handed hitters, Hendriks’ intentions appear to be to pepper the outer-half of their zone similar to lefties. Only the above scenario plays out leaving his pitches in a far too favorable of a spot for right-handed hitters:
While his fastball has been hit pretty hard overall (.362/.412/.553) it is his slider, his most used secondary pitch, that has been bombed back to the Stone Age (.333/.349/.857). Seven of his 12 home runs allowed have come on this pitch (there is plenty of visual evidence of that). This should be his swing-and-miss pitch and yet it is getting destroyed – and part of that is related to his inability to pitch inside effectively.
Whether it is game-planned or not, Hendriks has simply not shown opponents that he will throw the ball inside regularly – particularly to righties. For Hendriks, who is a fastball/slider pitcher to righties, this should be a critical element of his game. If he demonstrates that he is able to place his fastball on the inner-half, hitters will be forced to open their hips to respect that pitch which should enhance his slider that runs away from right-handers.
Last year, in addressing this very subject, former major league pitcher Ron Darling said “That’s what gets a hitter to speed up his thought process. When he’s thinking ‘quick,’ that’s when you can get him out away. And, more important for a pitcher, it enables you to get away with the occasional mistake away because you’ve disrupted his timing just enough.”
Hendriks has made plenty of mistakes away to righties this year but because he is not locating inside, right-handed hitters do not have to respect that portion of the zone and wind up leaning over the plate.
As Terry Ryan insinuated after yesterday’s ballgame, Hendriks still have a lot to prove before he is considered a part of the 2013 rotation. Pitching inside effectively may be a part of that.