The Rundown: Home Run Hendricks, Maples’ Wiffleball Slider, Contreras Coming Around

Kyle Hendricks has been awesome for the Cubs and I consider myself an early adopter when it comes to the recognition of that awesomeness. Since he debuted in 2014, only 11 starters can claim a better ERA than the 3.11 Hendricks has compiled. But — there’s always a but with a lede like that — his propensity for giving up home runs has had him looking less than stellar this year.

After giving up two dingers to the Dodgers last night, Hendricks has allowed 16 on the season. That’s only one homer shy of the high-water mark of 17 he set in 2015 and last season, and he’s still got at least two more starts before the All-Star break. That career-high 2.84 BB/9 mark isn’t helping things either.

The biggest issue, at least in terms of the homers, has been fastball and sinker location. Take a look at the heat maps below and see if you notice anything. The first shows location of Hendricks’ “hard” stuff through last season and the second is this season.

With obvious allowance for much higher volume in the first of these maps, it’s pretty clear that Hendricks is leaving the ball up more frequently. Or perhaps a better way to say it is that he’s not getting the ball down as much. We’re not talking about some kind of stark change or anything, and his peripherals aren’t wildly different as a result, but little things like this have an impact.

Increase hard-hit percentage here and dial up the fly balls and line drives there, all of a sudden you’re seeing a ball go over the fence than otherwise would have died in an outfielder’s glove. Hendricks’ 18.2 percent home run-per-fly ball rate is 3.4 ticks higher than last season and 6.3 higher than his career average, even though most of his batted-ball metrics are within a point or two of his recent and/or career marks.

I guess the good news is that he isn’t far off from being able to recapture that form, though he may want to do so pretty soon. Hendricks doesn’t have a wide margin for error as it is, and failing to get the sinker down essentially eliminates any of that leeway.

Maples throwing wiffleballs

Anyone who’s been around CI or my Twitter account for more than a week or so is probably aware of my borderline unhealthy obsession with Dillon Maples. The hard-throwing reliever made his 2018 Cubs debut last night in LA and did not disappoint, striking out the side in the 5th and getting through the 6th unscathed after inducing some grounders.

He wore the number 36, which is fitting because that’s my favorite number (not because of Maples or Sarge Matthews, but the Wu-Tang Clan). It’s also the number of sliders he threw out of 44 total pitches in his two innings of work. Yep, 82 percent slidepieces, most of which did stuff that wasn’t even possible before George Lucas founded Industrial Light and Magic.

Seriously, it’s a good thing this game was on so late since I’m not sure they’d have been able to air it earlier due to the filth.

Maples threw only one curveball, which ended up hitting Justin Turner, and fired seven fastballs that averaged 97.4 mph. Only three of the heaters were called balls, which is a nice development. That’s going to be the real key to Maples sticking at the big-league level, since locating a high-90’s fastball and then mocking physics with that slider would make him one of the best relievers in the game.

The other thing that may help him is having umpires get used to just how much drop he’s getting on that breaking ball and where it ends up. He was really getting squeezed at the bottom of the zone, as you can see below in the chart of his pitches on a walk to Kiké Hernandez in the 6th. There was a similar call in Joc Pederson‘s 5th-inning walk.

My big takeaway from this outing was that Maples looked much more composed on the mound, something that had been an issue for him early in his career. When I got the chance to sit down with him during this past Cubs Convention, he talked about upping his mental game and taking away a measure of stoicism from guys like Hendricks and Wade Davis.

Continued growth and even a little more control of that fastball would make Maples a regular at the back end of the pen with Pedro Strop, Carl Edwards Jr., and Brandon Morrow. Heck, it’s not hard to see the 26-year-old as the latter’s eventual successor.

WillCo makes loud noises

Despite the fact that he’s been within spitting distance of his career marks, there’s been a little rabble about Willson Contreras and his lack of pop. Through the first half of June, he was slashing .271/.364/.435 with a .348 wOBA and a 118 wRC+ that ranked among the best catchers in baseball.

He’s upped his game a little bit since June 16, though, and is now up to a .358 wOBA and 125 wRC+ on the strength of a five-game hitting streak. If that’s a down performance, I’ll take it every day.

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