The education of Kyle Hendricks and why Cubs won’t overreact to a slow start

The education of Kyle Hendricks and why Cubs won’t overreact to a slow start

Kyle Hendricks was coming off a breakthrough season where he had been the organization’s minor league pitcher of the year when the Cubs invited him to their rookie development program in Chicago.

Coordinated with Cubs Convention in January 2014 – to give prospects a sense of the market’s rabid fan base and media spotlight – Hendricks sat down with scouting/player development chief Jason McLeod and farm director Jaron Madison inside the team’s Clark Street offices.

“We were doing his offseason player plan with him,” McLeod recalled. “We take a lot of pride in putting these things together, strengths and weaknesses, and so we give Kyle his and I’m doing the intro: ‘Well, obviously, it was a great year you’ve had, winning pitcher of the year, not that there were many weaknesses to what you did…’

“He like almost cut me off and he goes: ‘No, I think there were plenty of weaknesses.’ He didn’t say this, but he almost had a look on his face like: ‘This is all you got?’”

This was days before the New York Yankees would win the Masahiro Tanaka sweepstakes, and Hendricks had only six starts above the Double-A level on his resume. By that July, Hendricks would step into a rotation that took a short-term hit when the Cubs shipped Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel to the Oakland A’s in the Addison Russell trade.  

“They were giving me s--- for that,” Hendricks said with a laugh. “There were a few things I pointed out. It caught them by surprise. They told me all this good stuff, and I was like: ‘Where is the stuff I need to work on?’ It was pretty funny.”

The education of Hendricks, who has a degree in economics from Dartmouth College, never stops. He does yoga, focuses on breathing and absorbs scouting reports. He doesn’t need to look at the scoreboard or the radar gun to know when something is off.

“Kyle is still not on top of his game yet,” manager Joe Maddon said in the Wrigley Field interview room after Wednesday’s 7-4 comeback win over the Milwaukee Brewers. “I would say more than anything it would be the velocity.

“It’s all there – he’s not injured, he feels good. He threw one 86-mph fastball right by (Eric) Thames, only because he had been below that, and all of a sudden that’s 86. My point is, when he gets back to 87-88, then you’re going to see that greater separation between the fastball and the changeup.

“Right now, there’s not a dramatic separation between the two pitches, and that’s where the disconnect is for him now. I’m fully confident that he’s going to get that uptick in velocity back. And then you’ll see that greater separation, and then you see the bad swings.” 

It would be impossible to expect Hendricks to match the 2.13 ERA he put up last season, an incredible combination of Ivy League smarts, mechanics in alignment and soaring confidence. Jake Arrieta played a similar game of expectations last year after winning a Cy Young Award and still managed to beat the Cleveland Indians twice in the World Series.

So the Cubs certainly aren’t going to overreact to three not-great starts in April where Hendricks has gone only five innings twice and given up three or four runs each time, leaving him with a 6.19 ERA. The Cubs have won two of those three starts, and slotting Hendricks fifth in the rotation did create an eight-day layoff to start the season.

Last year’s third-place finish in the National League Cy Young Award voting generated the most attention, but look at this 75-start sample (plus one relief appearance) for Hendricks in a Cubs uniform heading into this season: 31-17, 2.92 ERA, 1.070 WHIP.

Check out four of the first six names that pop up under “Similarity Scores” on Hendricks’ Baseball-Reference page: New York Mets aces Jacob deGrom, Matt Harvey and Noah Syndergaard, plus Tanaka.  

“The biggest thing that will get you in trouble is that you try to top that,” Jon Lester said. “Instead of a 2.2 or a 2.1 (ERA), it’s ‘I want a 1.8’ and you start kind of putting that in your mind. That’s why, for me, I’ve always just tried to stay with that 200-inning goal. Make every start and (reach) 200 innings, because I know that I’ll be somewhere around where I normally am.

“You’re going to have years like last year where Kyle wins (16) games and he has a (2.13 ERA). And then you’re going to have years where you get your butt kicked and you’re kind of doing the same stuff and you don’t really know why. You just try to maintain. (And) at the end of the year, you look up and you’re right there.

“We kind of know who (Kyle) is and what to expect. He made some really big adjustments for himself last year that obviously worked. So now it’s a matter of: Is the league going to adjust to him with them seeing him a couple times? He’s a smart kid. He knows. He makes really good in-game adjustments.

“The sky’s the limit. Is he going to have the 2.1? Who knows? We have a really good defense and I know that saved a lot of runs for us last year.”   

The Associated Press reported Major League Baseball Advanced Media is now using Statcast instead of PITCHf/x to report velocities, which has led to some upticks around the game. Here’s how FanGraphs has clocked Hendricks’ average fastball since 2015: 88.3, 87.8 and 85.4 mph.

Hendricks – who led the majors with a .581 opponents’ OPS last year – has given up four homers in 16 innings this season. As a control/command pitcher, Hendricks walked four Brewers during Wednesday’s no-decision, including pitcher Tommy Milone on four pitches.   

“Overall, still just need to kind of find that groove and lock it in,” Hendricks said. “My mechanics have been a little off, I’ve noticed, the last two weeks or so. I ramped up my throwing, so maybe throwing more has caused that. I just got to find the right balance right now.

“I just don’t feel strong out there, so I got to get my arm strength and feel like I can step on it (and) get the velocity back. And then from there, my changeup will just play off it.”

Hendricks emerged last year as the ace we didn’t see coming, allowing three earned runs or less in 22 straight starts from May 22 to Sept. 26, beating Clayton Kershaw and the Los Angeles Dodgers the night the Cubs won their first pennant in 71 years and starting an epic World Series Game 7.

“That’s kind of been my MO – I’ve always been a slow starter,” Hendricks said. “You don’t like to be that way. You’re always trying to combat that. But, again, I felt good in spring. It just hasn’t transitioned yet. It’s staying with the process. I know what I have to do.”

Predicting Cubs-Dodgers NLCS Game 5: 'Why not us?'

Predicting Cubs-Dodgers NLCS Game 5: 'Why not us?'

"NOT IN OUR HOUSE!" a Cubs coach yelled as he walked through the media throng awaiting entry into the clubhouse.

There was Kyle Schwarber standing at his locker, emphatically saying, "we're not gonna go down quietly."

There was Jake Arrieta, already making plans for what he would do to celebrate after the Cubs beat the Dodgers in the NLCS.

What a difference a day makes.

The Cubs looked completely beat and worn down after Game 3 Tuesday night. Kris Bryant echoed the same line — "why not us?" — he delivered last fall when the Cubs were down three games to one in the World Series, but this time, it just didn't feel the same.

Bryant looked shellshocked and admitted the team was drained after the NLDS and traveling across country to get steamrolled by the Dodgers in the first two games of the NLCS.

Wednesday night, things were different.

Even though the offense still hasn't broken out. 

Even though all the Cubs' runs still came off early homers — they have yet to score in this series not off a longball.

Even though Wade Davis is unavailable for Game 5 Thursday — the Cubs haven't won a game this postseason in which Davis did not pitch.

Even though the best pitcher on the planet — Clayton Kershaw — awaited the Cubs Thursday night at Wrigley Field.

The belief was back in the home clubhouse at Wrigley, even if it was just for one day.

But was it just for one day? 

I've been saying it all fall — the only time this Cubs team has played up to their potential is when they've had their backs against the wall. Your back couldn't possibly get more against the wall when down 0-3 in the NLCS, a deficit only one team in baseball history has come back from.

Conceivably, yes, the Cubs can pull this off. They can climb all the way out of this hole and make a second straight World Series.

If any team can do it, it's the group that erased the longest championship drought in American sports history and did it in the most dramatic way imaginable.

Will the Cubs be able to pull it off? 

I have no idea, honestly. I know that's a cop-out, but screw predictions at this point of the postseason. 

There's a very real possibility the Cubs offense finally breaks out and takes one more step toward writing this team's entry into the baseball history books.

There's also a very real possibility Kershaw comes out and slams the door on any talk of Cubs magic and finally pitches his way into the World Series for the first time.

Either way, the build-up to Thurday night around Wrigleyville is gonna be fun as hell.

Here's how the Cubs will line up as they try to take down Kershaw:

1. Albert Almora Jr. - CF
2. Kyle Schwarber - LF
3. Kris Bryant - 3B
4. Anthony Rizzo - 1B
5. Willson Contreras - C
6. Addison Russell - SS
7. Javy Baez - 2B
8. Ben Zobrist - RF
9. Jose Quintana - P

It's interesting to see Zobrist so low in the lineup. He's never hit eighth in a Cubs uniform and his last start in that spot in the order came in 2010 with Joe Maddon on the Tampa Bay Rays.

A huge reason for Zobrist's spot so low in Thursday's game is because he hit just .179 with a .553 OPS against left-handed pitchers in 2017 as he dealt through a wrist injury and other ailments that made hitting right-handed difficult.

In another huge playoff moment, Wade Davis stays cool while everything else around Cubs goes crazy


In another huge playoff moment, Wade Davis stays cool while everything else around Cubs goes crazy

This became a three-ring circus on Wednesday night at Wrigley Field, Cubs manager Joe Maddon screaming at the umpires, the video board showing the replay of Curtis Granderson’s swing and the crowd of 42,195 booing and chanting “BULLS#$!!”

The Los Angeles Dodgers are still in command of this National League Championship Series, but the Cubs won’t go quietly into the offseason, unleashing All-Star closer Wade Davis for the final two innings of a 3-2 thriller that kept them alive for at least another night.

The Cubs can worry about the daunting task of winning three more elimination games in the morning. Once Davis forced Cody Bellinger into the double-play groundball that left Justin Turner stranded in the on-deck circle and this one ended at 11:16 p.m., he pulled at his right sleeve and buttoned the top of his jersey while waiting for the Cubs to start the high-five line. “Go Cubs Go” blasted from the stadium’s sound  system and fireworks erupted beyond the center-field scoreboard and Davis acted as if nothing had happened.

To put the idea of beating the Dodgers three times in a row in perspective, the Cubs blasted three homers and got a classic big-game performance out of Jake Arrieta and still needed Davis for a heart-stopping, high-wire act.

Maddon already ruled out Davis for Thursday night’s Game 5 after the closer fired 48 pitches – or four more than he did during last week’s seven-out save that eliminated the Washington Nationals. But at least the Cubs will have those decisions to make instead of cleaning out their lockers.

“I don’t know,” Davis said. “We’ll definitely come in tomorrow and get some treatment and go out and play catch and see how I feel.”

It looks like Davis doesn’t feel anything on the mound. Davis didn’t react to Turner chucking his bat and yelling into the visiting dugout after crushing a 94-mph fastball for a home run to begin the eighth inning. Davis didn’t seem bothered by Yasiel Puig flipping his bat after drawing a walk. And Davis never lost his composure while Maddon got ejected for the second time in four NLCS games.

Maddon flipped out at home plate umpire Jim Wolf – and really the entire crew – when what was initially called a swinging strike three on Granderson got overturned and ruled a foul tip.

“Wade doesn’t care about any of that,” first baseman Anthony Rizzo said. “That’s the right guy to have on the mound. With the mentality he has, he’s going to strike the guy out on the next pitch. Obviously with the replay, it’s not easy to keep your composure. But he’s just different. He’s a different animal.”

While the fans at Wrigley Field got loud and turned angry, Davis chatted with catcher Willson Contreras: “I was just trying to think of the next pitch I was going to throw if he ended up staying in the box.”

Davis got Granderson (0-for-4, four strikeouts) swinging at strike four, walked Yasmani Grandal and then blew away Chase Utley with a 95.1-mph fastball, needing 34 pitches to finish the eighth inning. Davis wasn’t finished, using a Kris Bryant bat to hit against Dodger lefty Tony Cingrani, fouling off five pitches before striking out looking at a 94.9-mph fastball.

“Yeah, I gave up there after a little bit,” Davis said with a look that sort of resembled a smile. “He was bringing it pretty good, and I hadn’t seen a baseball in a while coming in like that.”

If the Cubs are going to match the 2004 Boston Red Sox – the only other team to come back from an 0-3 deficit since the LCS format expanded to seven games in 1985 – they are going to need the offense to generate more runs, a great start from Jose Quintana on Thursday night and someone else to run out of the bullpen. Not that Davis is ruling himself out for Game 5.

“Go get some sleep and then come in tomorrow and start getting ready,” Davis said.