A few months back I heard legendary sportswriter/curmudgeon Ray Ratto mention a measuring stick he has for whether a baseball team would have a surprising season, and it got me thinking about the Guardians.
Obviously, things like a breakout star, good starting pitching, that sort of stuff are vital, but Ratto pointed to the bullpen, and how he liked to see four guys you could truly count on. Being able to shorten games, hold leads, and silence opposing offenses can lead to a ton of easy wins. At the time of his saying this, I couldn’t identify more than about three in the Guardians bullpen — Emmanuel Clase, Trevor Stephan, and James Karinchak — and I was desperate to find that fourth. It wasn’t Bryan Shaw, you could make the case for Nick Sandlin, and Eli Morgan was having a moment there for a bit, but we have finally seen one guy stake his claim this year. Once an afterthought, a garbageman of sorts last year, it’s looking like Sam Hentges has become one of the Guys in relief for Cleveland.
Looking at Hentges’ numbers this year, it’s hard to remember just how decidedly dreadful he was in 2021. He couldn’t get anyone out, he couldn’t hit the strike zone, and he just seemed to fall in love with either balls flying wildly to the backstop or soaring gracefully over his head and into the bleachers. In 30 innings he had 11 wild pitches and 10 home runs allowed, to go along with a host of other dreadful numbers, trends, and leading indicators. His Baseball Savant bubble chart was the stuff of nightmares.
Of pitchers with at least 60 innings pitched last year, he had the fourth-highest ERA in baseball. He was bad.
But that doesn’t matter now, does it? It’s important to remember where you’ve been, and how horrible those times were if only to understand and appreciate the wonder and joy of the right now. And right now, Hentges is incredible, one of many wonderful arms that Terry Francona can look to. He’s dropped his ERA to 2.38, lifted his strikeout rate more than seven points to 28.9%, dropped his home run rate by nearly two-thirds to 1.2%, and boosted his grounder rate to an incredible 61.2%, which is sixth best in all of baseball. He’s also handling both sides of the plate, keeping righties to a .621 OPS and lefties to a root cellar low .378.
In short, he’s been savage, especially in the second half. Since the break, he’s pitched 28.2 innings and allowed two runs, and just one earned. He struck out 34, walked five, and allowed just 12 hits. In the stretch run, as Cleveland got a stranglehold on the division, he pitched 14 innings over 12 games in September and October and allowed four hits. It goes on and on like this.
The natural question is ... how? The immediate answer is, shut up idiot, stop looking that gift horse in the mouth. On paper his stuff seems similar — still a big sweeping breaker, still sitting in the high 90’s on his fastball, but where once it was either a breaking pitch drifting over the plate or a rope-straight fastball, Hentges is putting some interesting sauce on the pitch. Or rather, he’s just giving the hitter a different look.
It’s a sinker! Neat! Whoever said the sinker was a dead pitch back in 2015 is a fool. Look at Cal Quantrill, being serviceable. Look at Hentges, using it to pair with his fastball to make hitters very sad. He’s thrown 250 of them this year, and more so on lefties than righties at a 154 to 96 split despite facing right-handed bats substantially more, 145 PA’s against 97 facing lefties this year.
More to that though, it’s been a growing trend throughout the year. While Hentges’ 2.36 ERA is nice on the year, remember that in the first half it was still 4.18, much closer to what we have been used to out of him. He probably recognized that, and he’s made adjustments simply in how he attacks hitters:
As the year has worn on, he has simply thrown fewer and fewer fastballs, at a career-low 26% in the final month of the season. Not only that, depending on handedness he throws a different breaking pitch. Left-handers have seen just 18 of the 178 curves he’s seen, and righties have seen only 38 of the sliders he’s thrown this year. Perhaps it’s about that approach — he lives up in the zone with his fastball a lot, so a big looper against the right-hander makes sense.
This is what they’re seeing:
And this is what the lefties are seeing out of that darting slider:
Combine that second with a sinker running back at you, and suddenly Hentges, with the right tunneling, is working on something like three feet of potential movement from one side to the other. Between that and his making righties cover basically from their shoulders to shoe tops because of the break on that curve, you get why he’s been so effective.
This Is the kind of stuff that proves the legend of the Cleveland Pitching Factory. This guy was nothing short of terrible last year, even if the raw stuff was plain. How can you immediately give up on a massive lefty who throws hard and has a sweeping slider like he brings? Sure, it didn’t work, but one of the key aspects of science is failure. Getting it to work for a pitcher is endless experimentation — with grips, arm angles, positioning on the mound, the list goes on.
The pressure cooker of the playoffs, however long this run is, will prove whether these tests have worked for Hentges. As we’ve seen the last few years, starters are going five innings, tops. He’s going to have his chance to prove his hypothesis.