No, Kyle Hendricks didn’t plan to quietly nudge his way into the Cy Young Award conversation when he outlined his goals for 2016. But here he is, leading the majors with a 2.09 ERA while the Cubs watch their nominal fifth starter transform into a dominant pitcher who should be at or near the front of a playoff rotation.
“I had my sights set a little lower,” Hendricks admitted. “I’m just taking it in stride.”
Hendricks continued his systematic destruction of National League lineups on Tuesday night at Wrigley Field, shutting down the Pittsburgh Pirates during a 3-0 victory as the Cubs continued their march toward a division title and what they expect will be a deep run into October.
The magic number to clinch the NL Central is 18 after Hendricks crafted seven scoreless innings against a dangerous Pittsburgh lineup, not allowing a Pirate to go past second base while working efficiently (99 pitches, 61 strikes) during a clean game that lasted only two hours and 36 minutes.
On the one-year anniversary of Jake Arrieta’s no-hitter/onesie press conference at Dodger Stadium, Hendricks didn’t allow a hit until Gregory Polanco’s soft single to center field leading off the fifth inning. Hendricks (13-7) has entered his own zone — where he’s confident enough to throw whatever he wants whenever he wants — the way Arrieta did during last year’s Cy Young campaign.
“It’s just a different method,” manager Joe Maddon said. “Jake was a little bit more power — obvious power — but (Kyle’s) got a power changeup. (And) Jake had this freaky movement (on his fastball) — and so does Kyle. It’s just maybe not as hard but still equally effective. Give him credit. Stop looking at the gun. This guy’s really good.”
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The radar readings don’t matter as much when Hendricks can pinpoint two- and four-seam fastballs while dropping curveballs that play off his changeup, neutralizing hitters to the point where entire opposing lineups become very-good-hitting pitchers (.205 average/.581 OPS).
When Hendricks is on, Miguel Montero describes his job as putting down fingers and catching the ball.
“It’s all about location,” Montero said. “Nowadays, everybody’s just trying to overpower everybody (else) and they forget about the secondary stuff.
“He knows he doesn’t throw as hard, but he locates his fastball. He locates his secondary stuff and he works the edges. He worked the corners, and that’s actually even harder to hit than 97 (mph) down the middle. Even if you know the fastball’s coming, or the changeup’s coming, (when he executes the) pitch, you can’t do much with it.”
The Cubs (84-47) gave Hendricks — a pitcher already working with an understated confidence and a belief in his scouting reports — an early lead when Anthony Rizzo slammed a Chad Kuhl fastball off the small video panel above the right-field wall for a two-run homer in the first inning.
Whether or not Rizzo can catch up to Kris Bryant in the MVP race, Hendricks has to be among the leading Cy Young candidates, given his metrics (0.98 WHIP), remarkable consistency (18 straight starts with three earned runs or less) and strong August push (4-0 with a 1.28 ERA in six starts).
Hendricks has done it at home (9-1 with a 1.21 ERA through 14 games at Wrigley Field) and helped preserve the bullpen (3-0 with a 0.79 ERA in three starts following an extra-inning game the day before).
“It’s amazing how he does it,” Rizzo said. “He’s not the guy who’s getting away with plus-plus stuff. He’s just executing his game plan. He knows how to attack hitters. He studies hitters. And he went to Dartmouth and has a really good education, so he out-tricks guys.”
But this is much more than just a hot streak or a run of good matchups. Hendricks now ranks fifth in career ERA (2.96) among all active pitchers with at least 70 starts, trailing only Jose Fernandez, Jacob deGrom, Chris Sale and Madison Bumgarner.
Not that Hendricks is wondering about whether or not he will start Game 1 in the playoffs or where he will finish in the Cy Young voting compared to big-money aces like Max Scherzer.
“You can’t look that far in the future in this game, because it will come up and bite you,” Hendricks said. “I’m definitely a different pitcher than a lot of those guys. But, again, getting noticed, that kind of stuff, I’m just out there trying to pitch my game.”