‘Your eyes get big’: Why Kyle Hendricks is pitching up in the zone

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It’s a trend that is becoming more and more popular with pitchers, even the soft-tossing ones such as Chicago Cubs righty Kyle Hendricks. When he takes the mound against the St. Louis Cardinals on Sunday night, don’t be surprised if you see his catcher coming out of his crouch on almost half the pitches he throws.

Living upstairs in the strike zone — or even higher — is no longer just for the flamethrowers. The launch-angle era has changed strategies for many, including hurlers who average 87 mph on their fastball.

“I’ve been doing it more lately,” Hendricks said last week. “The way the game is going, the way guys are swinging, I feel like more of the holes are being presented up in the zone now.”

“More” might be an understatement. According to ESPN Stats & Information research, Hendricks has thrown at least 40 pitches in the upper half of the zone in each of his past five starts. The results have been astonishing: he’s 4-0 with a .198 batting average against, striking out 37 in 34⅔ innings pitched. For the season, Hendricks is climbing the ladder nearly 10 percent more than he ever has.

It really is as simple as that. And the converse of going really high in order to combat those swings is changing the eye level and going really low. No longer is a pitch at the knees, even a perfectly executed one, the ideal. That’s where the launch-angle swings live nowadays, and can do a ton of damage on what used to be a good pitch. So in short order, Hendricks has perfected the art of going high, for a swing-and-miss, then going down near the ankles for potentially another one.

In his most recent start, the Colorado Rockies got a taste of what Hendricks is doing this season — and it’s different than what they’ve seen in the past.6

“Until you get in the box, you really don’t realize he has you thinking early,” Colorado’s David Dahl said after going 1-for-3 against Hendricks. “Busts you in and up and then his other stuff plays off of that.”

Dahl shook his head, remembering a swing-and-miss on a sub-90 mph fastball up near his shoulders.

“Your eyes get big and the next minute you realize it’s by you,” Dahl said.

Others claim they’re surprised Hendricks throws only 87 or 88 mph, as the rising action gives his pitches some late zip. Career hitting machine — and former Cub — Daniel Murphy summed up the difference this way:

“He’s altered the shape of his fastball, which allows him to get to different quadrants of the zone they may have wanted to stay away from, maybe previously in his career,” Murphy said.nike nfl jerseys for cheap

In other words, the two-seam fastball has been replaced by a rising four-seamer and opposing hitters are biting. They’re hitting just .171 off pitches in the upper part of the zone, the lowest rate in Hendricks’ career.

“Weak contact is not necessarily down and away anymore,” Cubs pitching coach Tommy Hottovy explained. “If that’s up at their hands, or above, even at 88 or 89, that ball is by those guys, looking more like 91 or 92 mph.”