Kyle Hendricks Needs to Escape Dreaded First Inning of Death

Two starts do not a season make, but Kyle Hendricks has not yet shown the ability to navigate his way out of the labyrinthine First Inning of Death into which he fell last season. One could argue that it’s been an issue since he debuted, as the numbers were ugly early, but he was fine in 2015 and 2016. Even a 4.88 opening-frame ERA in 2017 wasn’t awful.

Since the start of 2018, however, Hendricks has faced 156 batters in 35 innings (4.46 batters/IP) and has allowed 27 earned runs (6.94 ERA) on 43 hits. Opponents have slashed .290/.327/.588 (.915 OPS) with 12 home runs as Hendricks has struggled with his movement and command early in games. For the sake of comparison, he has allowed only 13 home runs and a .664 OPS over the course of 172.1 subsequent innings since the start of 2018.

Things have been even worse this season, as opponents are putting up a 1.621 OPS with two homers and a double out of six total 1st inning hits. And what’s really wild is that Hendricks’ 9.00 ERA is way below his 16.59 FIP over those two innings (sample size, schmample size). But it’s just the start of the game that has him shook thus far, it’s the start of nearly every other inning.

So far in 2019, the first two batters of each inning have hit .588 with a 1.059 slugging percentage against Hendricks (h/t to Jordan Bastian). That’s, uh, well it’s not great, and it all starts with the inability to properly locate his sinker.

That’s the same thing he battled last season, though the problem isn’t just with the sinker itself but with how it sets up his other pitches. The changeup has been hit particularly hard in the early going, resulting in a 1.304 OPS and two homers. Without much deception, hitters are getting more swings at it and they’re doing damage with their contact.

It doesn’t help that the Cubs stumbled out of the gate and had admitted to putting pressure on themselves to generate urgency and make things happen. Hendricks may very well feel the weight of his recent extension as well, whether it’s to live up to the expectations of a higher salary or just the significance it brings. Whatever the reason, he claims he’s aware of the issues with his sinker and how to correct them.

“It’s just a little off,” Hendricks said of his sinker movement. “I know what I need to work on. I need to just iron it out.”

Let’s hope so, because remaining stuck in the FIoD is not going to be good for Hendricks or the Cubs in either the immediate or distant future. I suppose that goes without saying, since duh. Maybe Hendricks goes out and shuts down the next four teams he faces to put his stats back in proper perspective, but this isn’t an entirely new phenomenon and I’m not so sure it’s as easily dismissed as all that.

Or maybe it is, since we’ll be able to forget about it if the rest of the season falls in line with what we’ve grown to expect from Hendricks. So let’s just put a pin in this and come back to it every five days to find out how things are looking and whether we should commence with sending someone in there to look for him.

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