Raw materials are there. The pitching part? Not so much yet.
Sam Hentges is not something Cleveland fans are used to thus far in his young career.
From the jump, he’s this big pile of raw materials — huge fastball, hammer of a curve — but without the polish and refinement that is so unlike the typical Cleveland rookie pitcher. Add to that, he’s left-handed and getting chances to start, something we haven’t seen since maybe T.J. House, but with a ton more arm talent.
These things are cool because they’re different, and tools that can add to make a good pitcher. What’s also different is that Sam Hentges is just really bad. For a team that’s cranked starting pitching out like Alabama makes running backs over the last decade, it’s confusing, uncomfortable, and an affront to our existence.
Looking at him, Hentges is everything you’d want out of a big lefty. He’s literally really big, and unlike some tall dudes of years past like Loek Van Mil (7-foot-1, couldn’t throw 90) he’s got the Johnsonian velocity to his fastball and a big ol’ breaker that should be some kind of equalizer. And yet, the numbers (8.51 ERA, 2.30 WHIP, 21% strikeout rate, and 12.1% walk rate) are ugly after ugly after ugly.
Normally you could look to Statcast to at least feel a bit better about things, but even in the expected stats he’s bad, with a .408 xwOBA, xBA, and xSLG all in the bottom five percent of the league at best. If you took the average batted ball off Hentges, meaning it’s going at 90.5 mph with a 13-degree launch angle, the batting average across the league with those numbers on a ball like that is .952, 85% of the time for a single.
You get it though, right? He’s bad. We can tell that, we see him pitch. The outcomes are terrible, and at the end of the day, that’s all that matters. Here’s what drives me crazy though — that one-two punch Hentges has, his fastball and curve, is pretty lethal. Combined, he throws them 79.4% of the time. Hitters own a .559 wOBA on his fastball, which is very bad, but that’s bound to happen with most pitchers. Hitters want the fastball, and he’s behind in counts so often that he has to throw it. Meanwhile, his curve allows a .242 wOBA. Meaning hitters are Erik González on a hot streak when they face that pitch.
Together, they make a great pair. Take a look at this combo he fed Robbie Grossman earlier this year:
That’s great, right? Grossman went after the fastball because he was hunting it, and whiffed. Then he sat looking at a curve on the outside corner because for a while there, he thought it was the fastball and Hentges threw him into a pitching tunnel. These pitches work great together because, whether on purpose or by accident, they mirror their spin:
We’ve seen these charts when talking about tons of good pitchers. Shane Bieber basically hides everything in a single axis, that’s why he’s so great. You can’t tell whether it’s a four-seam, curve, cutter, whatever. Hentges has this with his curve and four-seam.
The issue is, there’s another 20.3% of his pitches we have to account for. No starter can live off two pitches. Even Pedro Martinez had to throw more than fastball/change, even Randy Johnson had to go beyond his four-seam and his slider. For Hentges, 20.4% of the time that’s his slider. And that’s where things start to go wrong.
If you had two pitches that had hitters putting up at least .472 wOBA on them, that’d be bad, right? Well, that’s the case with Hentges and his slider. It’s his third offering, and it’s about as blasted as his fastball. This is not good news. It’s also just not a good pitch in a vacuum, with 22% worse than average vertical movement and 50% worse than average horizontal movement. Basically, you could call it a decent cutter, but he’s actually trying to throw a slider in this case.
That’s one problem with it. The second relates to that earlier spin axis image, specifically this part:
See, where the curve and fastball kind of hide within each other, the slider is everywhere. You or I probably couldn’t tell what was coming, but major league hitters are good at seeing. They know to take or to rake, depending on the spin and where they see it out of his hand. With a spin axis that wide, it just seems like it’s not a refined pitch.
He could be working on it of course, and this could even be on purpose. Throwing a more gyroscopic slider, meaning it doesn’t have a lot of active spin (that which creates break) could be Hentges trying to hide it in his fastball as well. Rather than having a big sweeper of a slider, he’s looking for something more like what Zach Plesac throws, that kind of late, small, snappy break that creates deception and soft contact.
That could be the case. It could also just be not great — which means we’re just going to have to suffer with him until he figures it out. It’s just that it seems like a poor choice of pitch to try to grow. His curveball already lives in a similar plane of movement and is a pretty solid pitch. The ideal would be some kind of Strasburg-esque changeup to help add deception, improve the curve, and have a pitch that runs away from righties. Hentges’ change doesn’t move like that, but it does exist and seems like it should be a more featured pitch. That’s an idea, whether it’s the right one or not, we’ll have to see.
Pitchers can have overlapping repertoires. Corey Kluber’s slurve and cutter behaved similarly, Shane Bieber is the same with his own breaker and cutter. But they hid their pitches in the spin, at least partially, and that gave them that edge. Hentges is, again, much more raw than either of those guys or even Plesac or Aaron Civale.
He’s going to have growing pains like all those guys did, but hopefully he can figure out what works for him. Right now, it’s not, and he’s getting crushed every time he takes the hill. The team wants him to be a starter, so it’s going to take a bunch of lumps before he really clicks.
That’s what this year is for though, so I guess we grin and bear it.