After a great first start for the Royals, where does Liam Hendriks fit?
In a stunning reversal of fortune, Liam Hendriks played the role of Cy Hendriks in his first start for the Royals. Normally, it's some random Twins pitcher or some other such nonsense who turns in a Cy Young performance against the Royals. That guy normally goes on to do pretty much nothing. This time, the Royals were on the good side of that. Let's overanalyze his one start for our beloved playoff hunters and see where Hendriks might fit with rosters about to expand.
First, there was a clear gameplan, and it was simple. Throw all the strikes. The Twins, being a team that doesn't swing very much, would theoretically be vulnerable to a pitcher who can get the ball over the plate and get ahead in the count.
"I was getting ahead, I was getting my first pitch strikes...I was able to keep them off balance," said Hendriks. Indeed, Hendriks grabbed 20 first pitch strikes against the 25 batters he faced, including those who made contact on the first pitch. The MLB rate for first pitch strikes among starters is 61%, and Hendriks sat at 80%. As for keeping the Twins hitters off balance, Hendriks got 18 foul balls if I counted correctly from Brooks Baseball data. I don't know if that's average, but that sure seems like a lot.
Overall, Hendriks threw 70% fastballs and was very successful against a team with strong plate discipline. When GMDM acquired Hendriks, I was hopeful that a new team with a big park and a strong outfield defense would help him out. The Twins and Blue Jays aren't exactly known for outfield defense. Hendriks' plan was to pitch to contact, but he got ahead of so many hitters that even a few strikeouts came along for the ride.
For his career in the bigs, Hendriks is a fly ball guy who doesn't strike out many guys. He sounds a heck of a lot like Jeremy Guthrie, but he hasn't shown the contact management skills that Guthrie displayed as a member of the Orioles. After a strong first impression, I think there should be a place for Hendriks on the roster in September.
As we head down the stretch, the Royals are positioning themselves to be able to play different kinds of games. They have starters who can log innings, but they also have the middle guys who can take over if someone struggles. We've complained about the seemingly excessive pitching staff the Royals have through the main part of the season, but in September, the Royals are going to have tons of pitchers. I'm sure they trust Ventura and Duffy for now, but those guys are probably getting fatigued. Duffy hasn't thrown more than 100 innings since 2011. Ventura has skipped two starts now for apparently minor ailments, and he's also reaching a new maximum for innings very soon.
At the very least, Hendriks is a depth option. He's potentially an improvement over Chen as the 6th guy. I'm not sure I trust his offspeed stuff too much yet, but he can do some nice things with his fastball. I wouldn't want him exposed too much in a second or third turn through the order. He's a great spot starter/long relief guy.
A more interesting use of Hendriks would be as a piggy back for Duffy and/or Ventura. This strategy does run the risk of Ned over-managing, but the payoff is the possibility of reducing the times-through-the-order penalty while seeing if Hendriks can be successful over more than one start. Letting Ventura or Duffy throw 3-4 innings and then tossing Hendriks out there for 2-3 innings sounds pretty good to me. It also helps save Ventura and Duffy's arms. I think Hendriks can stay.
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