The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of: Liam Hendriks

Many popular opinions of pitching prospects are formed from general scouting reports. While these reports are invaluable resources, they can’t always be trusted. Hundreds of minor league hurlers are credited with “mid-90′s velocity,” but very few MLB starters actually have that grade of heat, for example. It’s incredibly frustrating to hear about a pitcher with “a mid-90′s heater and plus curve,” only to have him come up to the big leagues and show a fastball that averages 90.5 mph and a slider.

When a pitcher come up to the majors, we can finally get a foolproof reading on what exactly his arsenal is comprised of, thanks to the great Pitch F/X system. In this series, I analyze just that–the “stuff” of recently-promoted MLB pitchers. Now that they’ve achieved their big league dreams and thus factor directly into the MLB picture, it’s high time that we know exactly what these guys are providing.

This time, I’m taking a look at Twins starter Liam Hendriks.

As a prospect, Liam Hendriks’ stock continually rose as he kept similarly miniscule walk rates at each level of the minors. However, reports on his stuff varied, as some observers saw him as merely an inning-eating fifth starter, while others saw enough to recommend him as a classic Twins mid-rotation control artist.

A four-pitch pitcher, Hendriks works at 88-92 mph with his fastball, touching 93 or even 94 mph a couple of times per game. He’s averaged 90.4 mph with the heater thus far in his two big league starts. He shows the ability to cut it, sink it, or tail it at will without sacrificing velocity, which allows him to give a number of different looks with the pitch.

Hendriks throws both a slider (80-82 mph) and curveball (72-76). He hasn’t used the slider too much in the majors yet, but it’s notable for having substantial vertical drop, almost looking like a hard curveball at times. His curveball is a big, slow bender with solid-average break.

Against righthanders, Hendriks is a very fastball-heavy pitcher, only occasionally going to his breaking pitches. Against lefthanders, however, he makes much more extensive use of his curveball and changeup. The changeup is basically a straight change–its movement is almost identical to that of his fastball–but it’s nearly ten mph slower and he throws it with the same arm speed.

Basically, Hendriks is a 22-year-old with four average pitches and plus command and pitching savvy. As one might expect, he throws with a very clean, easy delivery and arm action. He does step somewhat toward third base in his delivery, as he loves to get good angle to the arm-side of the plate. Just look at his location to lefties:

It’s not surprising that a pitcher without plus “stuff” would want to keep the ball away from opposite-handed batters, but it’s more intriguing that Hendriks stays on that side of the plate to righties:

That’s understandably a bit more varied, but Hendriks clearly attacks righties, while he seems to shy away from lefthanders. Just compare the number of dots outside the strike zone on each graph. In fact, Hendriks throws junk off the plate to lefthanders so often that he brings to mind Livan Hernandez. Hernandez, of course, has survived for years with no “stuff” by simply throwing the ball out of the zone ~2/3 of the time, just waiting for a hitter to be enticed into swinging at one of those pitches and hitting it weakly. Hendriks is at a very Livan-ian 36.5% Zone Percentage thus far, so it seems his low walk rates result not from pounding the zone (although he does pound the zone to RHBs), but understanding his limitations and adopting an approach that fits them. Since he doesn’t have a huge swing-and-miss offering, Hendriks will nibble early in the count (56.3% first-pitch strike rate), looking to simply get a weak popup or grounder on a pitcher’s pitch. If he falls behind in the count as a result, he can always lean on his plus command to hit the corners with any of his pitches.

To use the requisite cliche, Hendriks is a rookie pitching like a veteran. As with rival AL Central rookie Dylan Axelrod, that’s a good thing, but it does mean that we shouldn’t expect huge gains from here on out. Regardless, Hendriks should settle in as a valuable piece to the Twins staff in short order.

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Tags: Liam Hendriks Minnesota Twins

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