ATLANTA — A solid bullpen stocked with veteran depth has allowed the Cubs to practice some risk aversion with right-hander Kyle Hendricks.
The 25-year-old starting pitcher has a solid 3.44 ERA over 18 starts this year, though he rarely pitches deep into games. He’s averaging about six innings and 87 pitches per start and has thrown 100 or more pitches in only two outings.
Hendricks is an efficient pitcher who rarely walks batters or gives up home runs, but manager Joe Maddon is less willing to unleash him deep into games than he is with other starters. Opposing hitters have a .333 batting average and .907 OPS when facing Hendricks for a third time, compared to slash lines of .250/.288/.375 and .203/.238/.314 the first and second times through the order, respectively.
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On Friday, Maddon pulled Hendricks with two out in the sixth so he could have Justin Grimm face A.J. Pierzynski, a matchup the Cubs manager thought was better than letting Hendricks face the former White Sox catcher.
“With our bullpen as strong as it is, I know we got plenty of guys behind me,” Hendricks said. “I definitely want to get deep in games but more importantly it’s not giving in, keeping the team in the game and not just trying to throw strikes.”
Instead of just trying to get the ball over the plate, Hendricks feels comfortable challenging hitters to make weak contact with the knowledge that if his pitch count gets high, the guys behind him can take care of the game.
Hendricks pitched into the eighth July 5 (91 pitches) and fired seven scoreless innings July 10 (90 pitches), and both of those starts came in close games. His 3.02 ERA over 31 major league starts has earned him a certain level of trust, though not to the level of fellow right-hander Jake Arrieta, who’s often afforded the opportunity to work late into games.
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Arrieta, for comparison, has a 1.65 ERA in innings seven though nine this year and opposing hitters have a .211 batting average and .610 OPS against him when facing him for the third time. But Arrieta has a mid-90’s fastball and a curveball hitters swing and miss at nearly 20 percent of the time. Hendricks relies on a sinker/changeup combination and lives between the low and upper 80’s.
There’s an added benefit to Maddon picking his spots with Hendricks, though. If the Cubs are still in the playoff race come September, the right-hander may not have as much mileage on his arm as other second-year starters in similar situations.
“You’re looking about September, man,” Maddon said. “And a guy like him, if you can keep him spiffy in September, that’s going to benefit you in the stretch run.”