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The Professor vs. Washington’s Quick Learners

By: Andy Cooper

STATS TVL data and Video Solutions break down Kyle Hendricks’ start against Bryce Harper, Daniel Murphy and the Nationals in Game 1 of the NLDS

Most envision Dusty Baker clenching his jaw in anger so hard that he snaps his trademark toothpick whenever he’s presented with any sort of advanced metric. In a sport where literally everything is counted, Baker has a reputation for being an old-school manager who trusts his gut far more than he’ll ever trust baseball’s version of a mathematician.

It seems fitting then that Kyle Hendricks, nicknamed The Professor with a degree in economics from Dartmouth who crunches numbers for fun, will be on the mound for the Chicago Cubs in Game 1 of the NLDS trying to shut down Baker’s Washington Nationals.

Ironically, STATS’ TVL algorithm mostly sides with Washington over Hendricks for the opener of the best-of-five series.

TVL tracks pitch type (T), velocity (V) and location (L) for each MLB pitcher and records the data into categories such as usage percentage of a specific pitch, the average velocity of each pitch type and the percentage a batter hits the ball on the ground against that pitch. The data is broken down further to show opponents’ batting average, slugging percentage, swing percentage and swing-and-miss percentage each time a specific pitch is thrown.

A pitcher’s TVL then can be pitted against a hitter’s success when facing specific pitches to project how the hitter would fare versus a particular pitcher, and unfortunately for Hendricks, he projects to struggle against the meat of the Nationals’ order.

Remember the last time Daniel Murphy faced the Cubs in the postseason? He homered in each game of the New York Mets’ 2015 NLCS sweep, including him tattooing a Hendricks two-seam fastball in Game 3. Murphy is entering this series on a tear as well, and that doesn’t even include his success against Hendricks the last time they faced off.

Murphy finished the regular season on a seven-game hitting streak, going 12 for 26 with a homer, two doubles and a triple while also walking four times. He also went 10 for 19 over his last five home games. That might not bode well for Hendricks, who served up two homers to Murphy back on Aug. 4.

Murphy crushed Hendricks’ 71-mph curveball that he hung over the plate in the first inning of the Nationals’ 4-2 victory. Hendricks then threw five straight fastballs over Murphy’s next two at-bats, and after flying out, Murphy hit a four-seamer on the outer half for an opposite-field homer.

Those previous blasts might be a bit misleading given that Murphy is 4 for 15 (.267) including the postseason in his career against Hendricks, but that success – and the TVL data – shows Hendricks needs to be careful with his pitch selection against Murphy’s power potential.

Murphy’s homer off Hendricks’ four-seamer isn’t all that surprising when knowing left-handers hit .319 against Hendricks’ four-seam. Hendricks has retired Murphy on mostly changeups and curveballs, and Hendricks will want to locate his change accordingly given that Murphy projects to hit .233 against that pitch, compared to solid averages against Hendricks’ four-seamer (.409), two-seamer (.383) and curve (.359).

Here’s how Murphy and other Nationals hitters are projected to fare against Hendricks’ pitches, according to STATS TVL data:

Judging by that data, Bryce Harper is going to be waiting for a Hendricks fastball to pounce on after he went 3 for 18 in five games since returning from a hyperextended left knee that kept him out over a month. Hendricks stayed true to the TVL data in the only game he faced Harper this season, throwing mostly curves and changeups. Harper lined out to third, hit a weak grounder to short that he beat out for an infield single, then popped out.

Harper’s projected low averages against Hendricks’ curve and changeup could bode well for Hendricks again. Hendricks’ changeup is his second most-used pitch at 27.9 percent, and that goes up to 29.6 percent against left-handed hitters. Those lefties hit .197 and slugged just .256 against it while whiffing on it 35.7 percent of the time – Hendricks’ highest whiff rate for any of his pitches.

However, Harper is notorious for taking advantage of pitchers’ mistakes, and Hendricks certainly can hang a pitch in the heart of the zone from time to time.

Hendricks by no means is a power pitcher, and his average velocity thrown to Harper in their 15 matchups is 85.2 mph. That’s probably why Harper tends to be late even when Hendricks gets his fastball to 88 or 89 mph in their matchups.

But Harper’s ability to hit for power to all fields makes him a threat no matter the location or speed of the pitch. The one time Harper has gone deep off Hendricks – May 26, 2015 – Harper didn’t even think he got enough of it, taking an 89-mph fastball over the left-field wall.

Perhaps the most interesting TVL projections are Ryan Zimmerman’s. The Nationals’ veteran first baseman is 0 for 9 with two strikeouts in his career against Hendricks but has solid projections when facing Hendricks’ two-seamer, curve and change.

That’s especially interesting when considering Hendricks has retired Zimmerman with a changeup five times in their matchups. But Zimmerman is entering Game 1 having going 9 for 11 in his last four home games with a pair of two-homer contests. So maybe things are ready to turn around for Zimmerman in his matchups with Hendricks.

The same could go for Anthony Rendon, who finished the season on a five-game hitting streak and hit safely in his last 14 at Nationals Park. Rendon fell to 2 for 11 with a walk and three strikeouts in his career off Hendricks after facing the Cubs starter Aug. 4.

Hendricks took advantage of Rendon’s .196 projected average against his changeup, throwing Rendon four straight changes while striking out Rendon in the first inning. Hendricks then went after Rendon with two-seamers in the next two at-bats – a walk and a lineout to second. Rendon has a .348 projected average against that pitch, so Hendricks will want to be careful about repeating that sequence.

The middle of Washington’s order – Murphy (.307), Harper (.294), Zimmerman (.335) and Rendon (.293) – all have pretty solid projected overall averages against Hendricks, who will have to mix up his pitches, locate and remember what worked in the past if he hopes to tame the red-hot Nationals hitters and help the Cubs strike first in the series.