From the Pages of Vine Line: Hendricks is always in control
Photo by Stephen Green
At the season’s outset, many thought starter Kyle Hendricks wouldn’t last in the Cubs rotation. Now he might be the best pitcher in the National League. We break down the Cy Young contender’s rise from fifth starter to ERA leader. The following story can be found in the October issue of Vine Line.
By Gary Cohen
Baseball fans love fireworks. They pack stadiums to witness majestic moon shots and glove-popping 98-mph heaters; they line dugouts to get autographs from players like Kris Bryant and Jake Arrieta; and they study the stat sheets to divine the latest league leaders.
The numbers have always defined the game. It doesn’t take more than a mention of 755, .406 or 511 for most fans to know exactly who and what you’re talking about.
Cubs starting pitcher Kyle Hendricks is unlikely to excite this set. In many ways, he’s a Bizarro superstar—a hero hidden behind a mild-mannered exterior.
Hendricks is far from an intimidating physical presence on the mound. His fastball averages just 87.6 mph, 71st out of 78 qualified pitchers—and two of the guys behind him are knuckleballers. He was drafted in the 39th round by the Angels out of high school and in the eighth round by the Rangers out of college. On paper, not much about him is eye-popping. But, as the old saying goes, games are not played on paper.
Though the unflappable 26-year-old has quietly put up one of the best statistical seasons of any starting pitcher in baseball—orbiting the same stratosphere as names like Clayton Kershaw, Madison Bumgarner, Noah Syndergaard and Arrieta—many expected he would eventually get squeezed out of the Cubs rotation by new acquisition Adam Warren at the season’s outset, and few even recognized his efforts until the dog days of August. But consistently flying under the radar is nothing new for Hendricks.
“It’s something I’ve been dealing with my whole career, probably my whole life, growing up, being one of those guys who didn’t throw hard,” Hendricks said. “I don’t think it bothered me as much as maybe it would someone else, just because I’ve had that all the way coming up. I’ve always had the critics. ‘He didn’t throw hard enough, this and that.’ At the end of the day, I’ve always learned you just have to have confidence in yourself.”
And why wouldn’t Hendricks be brimming with confidence? The California native wrapped up the season leading Major League Baseball with both his 2.13 ERA and 188 ERA+, which takes standard ERA and normalizes it across the league, accounting for external factors like ballparks and opponents. A 100 ERA+ is league average. Hendricks’ 188 is 88 percent better than league average. His 0.98 WHIP ranked second in the NL, and his .207 batting average against ranked third.
So the big question is why do many around the game still view Hendricks as the Cubs’ fifth starter or talk about him as nothing more than a fringe Cy Young candidate? The answer—as unsatisfying as it is—is simple: He doesn’t look the part. He doesn’t snarl and glower on the mound like John Lackey. He doesn’t throw the kind of gas that makes fans swoon when the number appears on the left-field video board like Aroldis Chapman. Though he is 6-foot-3, he’s not a physical paragon like fellow Cy Young contender Arrieta. In fact, he looks every bit the Dartmouth-educated economics major he actually is.
But game by game, the cerebral hurler is proving you don’t need to bring the heat to put a chill into opposing offenses. You just need to be able to execute pitches and place them exactly where hitters least expect them to be.
It’s always darkest before the dawn. Though 2015 was an ascendant season for the Cubs organization, with the club notching its first postseason appearance since 2008 and winning its first playoff series since 2003, things never quite felt right for Hendricks from an individual standpoint. By the time the
Cubs had moved into the postseason, manager Joe Maddon had him on a short leash. In two playoff starts, one in the NLDS and one in the NLCS, the right-hander went 4 and 4.2 innings and put up a 5.19 ERA. But the problems started much earlier than that.
The 2016 model of Hendricks has proven beyond a shadow of a doubt you don’t need to throw 95 miles per hour to get batters out. But if you are one of the dying breed of non-knuckleballers who throws under 90, you certainly don’t have as much leeway to make mistakes. Hendricks admitted his mechanics didn’t feel right from Day 1 in 2015, and that created a ripple effect of problems that undercut his performance.
“Last year when I was out of it, I didn’t feel confident,” he said. “I didn’t feel I could put the ball where I wanted to, and as a command guy, that’s the No. 1 problem. My stuff isn’t going to beat you, so I have to have command. I have to be able to put the ball where I want to. When I’m not doing that, confidence is tough to come by. So when I was in those situations, I was going to my sinker and change-up, things I could rely more heavily on.”
Pitchers like Hendricks count on keeping hitters off balance, and, as he said, opposing offenses could comfortably sit on the sinker or change-piece in key spots. Because he was working harder to get batters out and his rhythm was predictable, Hendricks seldom went deep into ballgames. His first time through an order, hitters posted a .228/.296/.355 line against him. By his third time facing the same hitters, they pounded Hendricks to a .329/.374/.520 mark, which explains why he lasted only 5.6 innings per start.
“Last year, I think he was a little bit too predictable,” said catcher Miguel Montero. “We talk about a lot last year, and I give him some advice here and there, but I don’t think he was ready. Actually, we talk about the same thing this year, and I say, ‘What you’re doing now, that’s what I was trying to tell you to do last year.’ We had talked about it, and he gave me the right answer. He said, ‘You know what? I don’t think I was ready last year to try it.’
“I wanted him to use his whole repertoire. I don’t want him to fall into a pattern using the same pitches over and over and over and over. You can see the first time through [the order], he was on cruise control last year. The second time through, he had a little bit of a tough time. And then when the third time through came up, he was out of the game.”
Even with all this working against him, Hendricks was still able to make 32 starts, strike out 167 hitters versus only 43 walks and post a 3.95 ERA. There are plenty of pitchers who would happily take that line in their first full professional season. But Hendricks definitely isn’t among that number.
“I think the standards of what we’re trying to do here [are very high],” he said. “Even with all the games we won last year, coming into this year, with what we’re trying to accomplish, there’s a very heightened sense of what you need to do.”
PAINTING THE BLACK
To say things have been different for Hendricks this season would be a vast understatement. He used his frustrating 2015 campaign as fodder to spur the next major step forward in his development, and his darting pitches have been baffling opponents since the spring.
“I kind of got out of my mechanics a little bit in the middle of last year,” Hendricks said. “When you go into those kinds of slumps, it helps you learn more about yourself coming out of it. So I had better cues, better checkpoints in my delivery, basically. I was able to kind of work those in at the end of the season last year, so going into the offseason, spring training, they just kind of followed from there.”
This year, Hendricks has quite simply been one of the best pitchers in baseball, he made organizational history for his efforts. He won the ERA title—his 2.13 mark was more than 30 points ahead of teammate Jon Lester, who took second in the National League. No Cubs pitcher has led the NL in ERA since “Big” Bill Lee in 1938 (2.66), and that includes Arrieta, who won the Cy Young Award in 2016 but still finished second in the ERA chase to Zack Greinke.
“He’s one of the most fun guys to watch pitch because he can dominate a lineup with 88-90 and a change-up,” Arrieta said. “A guy like myself can learn a lot from that, knowing we don’t have to try blowing 96 by guys or throw an amazing breaking ball to get a swing and miss. You’ve got to be good about changing speeds and changing eye level. He does that extremely well.”
Because Hendricks has been so much better this year, there’s a tendency to assume there was some dramatic change he made. The bottom line is: There really isn’t one. It all comes down to small adjustments and execution.
He used to throw a cutter, which he gave up on early last year, and he’s using his change-up, always his best pitch, a little more. Perhaps the biggest differences are that he’s frequently mixing in his four-seam fastball, with which he can touch 90 mph, and his curveball has become a plus offering. He’s not necessarily using it more, but it’s a much bigger weapon.
“That’s become a big pitch for him,” said Cubs bullpen coach Lester Strode. “Last year, it was more of a strike pitch. This year, he’s able to get guys out with it.”
He also feels much stronger heading into the most important games of the Cubs campaign. He’s worked hard to keep his body in shape and has even started practicing yoga. Unlike many pitchers, Hendricks likes to throw off the mound twice between starts, and he’s been doing a lot more long toss, a preferred workout of his, all season.
“I basically throw two shorter bullpens,” Hendricks said. “I’ve noticed it just helps me touching the mound more and getting more reps. I think because I’m that command-type guy. It just helps me stay sharper, and I don’t really fatigue too much from it.”
And the results bear that out. From June to September, Hendricks went 13-4 with a 1.80 ERA in 134.2 innings pitched. Besides his season finale on Oct. 2, he hadn’t given up more than three earned runs in a game since May 17, his seventh start of the season.
While his velocity dropped as last year wore on, it has actually increased this year. After starting the 2015 season throwing his fastball at 89.2 mph, according to Brooks Baseball, he was at his lowest velocity of 87.1 in October. This season, he was averaging 87.4 in April but had jumped to 89.2 by August.
When Hendricks came up to the big leagues with the Cubs in 2014, not much was expected of him, but he opened eyes around the league by putting up a 7-2 record and a 2.46 ERA in 13 starts for an improving team. He threw five pitches, all with movement, and had excellent command. His most effective weapon was probably his change-up, but he also had a sinking fastball that helped limit hard contact and keep the ball on the ground.
At first, the comparisons were inevitable, if not grandly premature. In the modern era, Hendricks is a far cry from flame-throwing behemoths like Syndergaard, Max Scherzer and Arrieta. Immediately, people started comparing him—though often a bit sheepishly—to Hall of Famer and four-time Cy Young winner Greg Maddux. The two even share a nickname: The Professor.
These days, that comparison is looking a bit more apt. Hendricks has become a true pitcher, someone who methodically studies, game plans and breaks down hitters’ tendencies. He knows what works for him, and understands how to exploit an opposing offense’s weaknesses.
“I was sitting in the bullpen the other day, and I was watching Kyle pitch, and one guy popped in my mind right away, and that’s Greg Maddux,” Strode said. “I said, ‘This guy is pitching just like Greg Maddux did.’ He’s not trying to overpower anybody. He’s making his pitches, locating pitches, changing speeds when he needs to change speeds on guys. He’s doing the exact same thing Greg did.”
Plus, Hendricks has the pitch mix and command to hit every quadrant of the zone. In other words, if you have a weakness, he can attack it. With his newfound confidence this year, he’s doing just that.
“Every time he’s pitching and we go over the scouting report, he’s locked in on it,” Montero said. “On every hitter, every pitch, he’s pretty locked in. You can see other pitchers, you go over the scouting report, and they got a little doubt here and there. He’s a guy who doesn’t have any doubts. He tell you what he wants to do and what the hitters’ weaknesses are and strengths. It’s pretty good. Obviously, you need to execute regardless, but he knows if he’s going to go fastball in, he’s got fastball in on this guy. He knows he can execute it, and he knows he’s got that pitch.”
In 2016, Hendricks has generated soft contact 25.1 percent of the time, more than any other pitcher in the game. Plus, he’s getting ground balls at a nearly 50 percent rate and limiting home runs, a problem for him last season. That’s a lethal combination that’s left even his more seasoned Cubs teammates awestruck.
“It’s kind of hard to believe now, realistically, you have a guy who throws 88, 89, touches 90, dominating the way he’s dominating,” Montero said. “But that’s the art of pitching. Pitching is not just throwing as hard as you can. Pitching is just having the art to actually change the speeds, change eye levels, move the batter, things like that. And he’s pitching. He’s not just throwing the ball. He’s actually pitching, and he’s a full-package pitcher.”
The unassuming Hendricks finds the comparisons flattering, obviously, but understands that Maddux became Maddux only by delivering consistent excellence over a 23-year career. You don’t win 355 games if you can’t sustain your stuff and deliver clean, repeatable mechanics.
“Sometimes I don’t think a lot of it, and sometimes it’s humbling,” Hendricks said. “Just to have it over and over, to hear it multiple times, I guess makes it the humbling part. But on the other hand, the things he’s done in this game are just unbelievable. So the comparisons as far as pitcher type, that kind of thing, maybe I’ll take. Beyond that, there’s not much I can really accept from that. He’s one of the best in the game, one of the best of all time, and I’ve got a long way to go.”
Because Hendricks looks like a regular human specimen on the mound and seldom breaks 90 on the radar gun, it’s easy to assume he’s the classic “comfortable 0-for-4” pitcher. In other words, hitters see him well, but somehow still can’t make hard contact. Cubs teammates dispute that theory.
“I don’t think it’s a comfortable at-bat just because you don’t know what you’re going to get,” said Lester, a fellow Cy Young contender. “That change-up, I think, is in the back of everybody’s mind, and now he’s started throwing his curveball a little bit more. A lot of guys who throw sinkers can’t throw four-seamers, and he throws that four-seamer. I think guys go up there with six different pitches in six different locations in mind, so I wouldn’t think it would be a comfortable at-bat.”
GUNNING FOR GREATNESS
Given Hendricks’ inscrutable mien, it’s ironic his favorite pitchers growing up were Pedro Martinez and Jake Peavy, notorious bulldogs who were unafraid to wear their emotions on their sleeve. Though he’s extremely well-liked in the clubhouse, Hendricks is notably quiet and generally keeps to himself. His teammates joke that they never know he’s arrived until they look over and actually see him sitting at his locker.
But don’t take Hendricks’ calm disposition to mean he’s not competitive. He’s a black belt in karate, and he’s determined to excel at whatever he sets his mind to.
“Everybody goes out there in a different mindset,” Lester said. “Some guys have to calm themselves down. Some guys have to act like nothing bothers them. Other guys pitch with their emotions on their sleeve. No one way is right. I don’t think you can dog a person because they don’t show emotion. That doesn’t mean they don’t care. I think when you’re around him, and you see every day what he does to prepare—for me that’s when you know somebody cares is the prep work and how much that day means to them.”
As a young pitcher, Hendricks has leaned on veteran catchers Montero and David Ross to help him understand how to execute a game plan, and he watches his fellow starting pitchers—by far the best unit in the game this season—to see how they attack hitters and keep their bodies healthy over the 162-plus-game haul.
“I have my own routine, I’m my own pitcher, I do my own type of things,” Hendricks said. “But watching the consistency and the dedication they put into their craft each and every five days, you know just how hard they work to get ready for the next start. There’s never a day off. They’ve never taken it easy. They know how to get their body ready to endure this long season and the playoffs. I take a lot of tips about those kinds of things.”
Despite all the Cy Young chatter this year, Hendricks said his life hasn’t changed all that much. The team is certainly more high profile, but he tries not to be. He lives close to Wrigley Field and occasionally still walks to games. Surprisingly, he said he seldom gets recognized.
“It’s once in a blue moon almost,” he said. “I just keep my head down. With my body type, people aren’t really going to recognize me. Which, the way my personality is, I’m fine with that.”
Hendricks admitted he’s humbled by being in the awards mix, but his 4.1 WAR, eighth in the NL, certainly justifies his inclusion. Still, the Cubs have their sights set on much bigger goals this season. Personal accolades, though nice, are nothing compared to what they’re shooting for.
“At the end of the day, those are just individual honors,” Hendricks said. “We have such higher hopes here of what we’re trying to do, so there’s a lot more to it. Trying to keep your body healthy. Do what you need to do to get through the end of the year and really make sure you’re hot and ready to go for the playoffs.”
In just his third professional season, Hendricks has become one of the elite arms in the game—whether fans and pundits realize it or not. Even on a team of aces, he’s far from a fifth starter anymore. He’s been the steadiest, most consistent performer all season long, and has had a unique knack for giving the team exactly what it needs.
He may look like more like Clark Kent on the mound, but he’s been a genuine Superman for the 2016 Cubs.