This look pretty much sums up Liam Hendriks' 2012 season to date. (Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)
Get ready for Liam Hendriks. Again. Yes, we've done this before. Twice this season. Hendriks made the team out of camp with a little help from an injury to Scott Baker and an awful personal crisis for Jason Marquis surrounding his daughter. His debut went well (his six one-run frames against the Rangers of all teams seem like a very distant memory though), but it's been straight downhill from there.
The Twins have come to the realization, however, that it teeters on statistically impossible for a pitcher to be less effective than Nick Blackburn (sorry, Nick) and are turning to Hendriks for the third time in 2012. Third time's charm? Let's hope so.
Hendriks has been dominant at Triple-A, pitching to a 2.20 ERA (3.09 FIP) with a 0.97 WHIP and 2.93 K/BB ratio. He's allowed only 76 hits in 106.1 innings, though he's benefited from a .240 BABIP (which helps explain the ERA-FIP discrepancy). There are two things Hendriks has done at the Minor League level that he's failed to do in the Majors, however: strand baserunners and keep the ball in the park.
The average Major League pitcher strands about 72 percent of baserunners allowed. Hendriks has stranded just 60 percent of his runners this season after checking in at 61.7 percent in 2011's brief sample. You can draw whatever conclusions you'd like from this stat. Maybe he has a mechanical flaw when pitching from the stretch. Maybe he's afraid of throwing a wild pitch and therefore relies too heavily on fastballs. Maybe he's not mentally tough enough to handle those pressure situations. Maybe he's just plain unlucky. I don't think it's the mechanical flaw, since he has no trouble with this in the Minors (78.6 percent strand rate). I'd bet that it's some combination of the other three and one other key stat.
Hendriks has thrown a first pitch strike to only 49.4 percent of the batters he's faced. The average Major League pitcher accomplishes this basic feat 59.8 percent of the time. That's likely the biggest reason he's forced to rely so heavily on his fastball. And, at 90 mph, it's not really a heater he's going to throw by many hitters... especially when he's throwing it down the middle portion of the plate so often. Hendriks' first-pitch strike percentage ties him for 10th-worst in MLB. Unfortunately, all but one pitcher with a worse rate than him have vastly higher swinging strike rates than his 4.9 percent (Tyler Chatwood is the exception at 4.3). Hendriks is getting behind hitters and then more or less hoping that they take a strike or two to let him back into the at-bat, because he rarely makes it happen himself.
At Rochester this season, three percent of balls put in the air against Hendriks (fly balls, line drives and pop-ups) have resulted in home runs. At the Major League level, that number jumps to 12 percent. In terms of solely fly balls, nearly 23 percent of his fly balls are clearing the fence. That's fifth-worst in baseball among pitchers with 30 or more innings thrown. He trails Jonny Venters, Mark Melancon, Mark Rzepcynski and Adam Ottavino in that department. Unfortunately, 31 percent of balls hit in play for Hendriks this season have been fly balls. Compare that to Venters (13.8), Rzepcynski (22.0) and Ottavino (25.3) and it's easy to see why this is a bigger problem for Hendriks (admittedly, Melancon has been almost equally as bad as Hendriks).
In seven of Hendriks' last nine Triple-A starts (including his past four), he's done something which he's accomplished just once in the Majors: complete seven innings (he did so in his MLB debut). He's allowed only two home runs in his most recent Triple-A stint, and save for one fluke outing in which he yielded 12 hits and six runs in five innings, he's been outstanding for Rochester.
I'm still a believer that Liam Hendriks can be a solid member of this rotation if he can transfer some of the basic skills he exhibits at Triple-A over to the Major Leagues. Hendriks isn't going to be an ace for this team, but if he get strike one at a league average rate, he won't be forced to throw his marginal fastball nearly two-thirds of the time he lets go of the ball. In doing so, he can maximize a four-pitch arsenal that should allow him to succeed as a back-end starter. A fourth or fifth starter doesn't sound like much to get excited about, but when stopping to consider that Nick Blackburn, Samuel Deduno and Cole DeVries have combined for -1.1 WAR (per Fangraphs), a passable fourth starter sounds pretty good to me.