Cubs

Why Cubs believe in Kyle Hendricks and his sneaky-good potential

Why Cubs believe in Kyle Hendricks and his sneaky-good potential

Maybe Kyle Hendricks would inevitably be overshadowed in a rotation featuring the National League’s reigning Cy Young Award winner (Jake Arrieta), a $155 million All-Star lefty (Jon Lester) and a Texas cowboy who also has two World Series rings (John Lackey). Not to mention a Cubs team identified with zoo animals, dance parties and an explosive offense.

The low-key personality, sense of calm and sharp focus that’s allowed Hendricks to survive in The Show – and also earn an economics degree from Dartmouth College – certainly plays into that perception as well. 

But there’s no denying what Hendricks means to the Cubs as an extremely reliable fifth starter for the team with the best record in baseball – in what’s shaping up to be a very shallow market for pitching at this summer’s trade deadline and this winter’s upcoming class of free agents.  

Hendricks had to become a huge part of the story after almost throwing a complete-game shutout during Saturday afternoon’s 4-1 win over the Philadelphia Phillies in front of 41,555 at Wrigley Field. 

“What you saw today – that’s what you could get out of him,” manager Joe Maddon said. “He’s 88-89 (mph) with the really good changeup and he broke out the hooks a couple times. But he’s good against lefties and righties when everything’s working. And he can keep the ball on the ground, which is really important in this ballpark. 

“Right now, what you’re seeing, to me, is not a reach by any means. This is what he can look like very, very consistently.”

Hendricks needed only 104 pitches to throw his complete game, allowing five hits and finishing with seven strikeouts against zero walks. The Phillies (26-23) scored their only run in the ninth inning, after second baseman Ben Zobrist and right fielder Jason Heyward lost a flyball in the sun. Freddy Galvis got credited with a double and later scored on the throw to first base to complete a Ryan Howard strikeout, taking advantage of the extreme defensive shift against Philadelphia’s fading slugger.   

Hendricks (3-4, 2.93 ERA) has thrown at least five innings in each of his nine starts so far this season. He made 32 starts last year and finished with a sub-4.00 ERA and a very good strikeout-to-walk ratio (167:43). He’s 26 years old and can’t become a free agent until after the 2020 season.

“Now his confidence is back on, because he knows he can use the curveball as well,” catcher Miguel Montero said. “There were so many ways to go, because everything was working.

“It’s huge (when) it’s not just fastball-changeup. He’s got another weapon to go to sometimes. And, obviously, as a hitter, you know it’s three pitches (now in play). It’s a little bit more uncomfortable for a hitter. You don’t know what you’re going to look for.”  

Hendricks beat Zack Greinke and the Arizona Diamondbacks in his first start this season – and lost a 1-0 decision to Madison Bumgarner and the San Francisco Giants in his previous start. Not that Hendricks is about to start pounding his chest on the mound or running his mouth in the interview room. 

“I’m pretty confident, but it doesn’t really matter much,” Hendricks said. “All that matters is going out there and making pitches. It’s back to work this week, (throw) my bullpen, stay where I’m at in my lane and keep the ball down with some angle.” 

When Kyle Schwarber met new Cubs hitting coach Chili Davis: 'I don't suck'

When Kyle Schwarber met new Cubs hitting coach Chili Davis: 'I don't suck'

MESA, Ariz. — The first thing Kyle Schwarber told his new hitting coach?

"His first statement to me is, 'I don't suck.'"

The Cubs hired Chili Davis as the team's new hitting coach for myriad reasons. He's got a great track record from years working with the Boston Red Sox and Oakland Athletics, and that .274/.360/.451 slash line during an illustrious 19-year big league career certainly helps.

But Davis' main immediate task in his new gig will be to help several of the Cubs' key hitters prove Schwarber's assessment correct.

Schwarber had a much-publicized tough go of things in 2017. After he set the world on fire with his rookie campaign in 2015 and returned from what was supposed to be a season-ending knee injury in time to be one of the Cubs' World Series heroes in 2016, he hit just .211 last season, getting sent down to Triple-A Iowa for a stint in the middle of the season. Schwarber still hit 30 home runs, but his 2017 campaign was seen as a failure by a lot of people.

Enter Davis, who now counts Schwarber as one of his most important pupils.

"He's a worker," Davis said in an interview with NBC Sports Chicago. "Schwarbs, he knows he's a good player. His first statement to me is, 'I don't suck.' He said last year was just a fluke year. He said, 'I've never failed in my life.' And he said, 'I'm going to get back to the player that I was.'

"I think he may have — and this is my thought, he didn't say this to me — I think it may have been, he had a big World Series, hit some homers, and I think he tried to focus on being more of a home run type guy as opposed to being a good hitter.

"His focus has changed. I had nothing to do with that, he came in here with that focus that he wants to be a good hitter first and let whatever happens happen. And he's worked on that. The main thing with Kyle is going to be is just maintaining focus."

The physically transformed Schwarber mentioned last week that he's established a good relationship with Davis, in no small part because Schwarber can relate to what Davis went through when he was a player. And to hear Davis tell it, it sounds like he's describing Schwarber's first three years as a big leaguer to a T.

"Telling him my story was important because it was similar," Davis said. "I was a catcher, got to big league camp, and I was thrown in the outfield. And I hated the outfield. ... But I took on the challenge. I made the adjustment, I had a nice first year, then my second year I started spiraling. I started spiraling down, and I remember one of my coaches saying, 'I'm going to have to throw you a parachute just so you can land softly.' I got sent down to Triple-A at the All-Star break for 15 days.

"When I got sent down, I was disappointed, but I was also really happy. I needed to get away from the big league pressure and kind of find myself again. I went home and refocused myself and thought to myself, 'I'm going to come back as Chili.' Because I tried to change, something changed about me the second year.

"And when I did that, I came back the next year and someone tried to change me and I said, 'Pump the breaks a little bit, let me fail my way, and then I'll come to you if I'm failing.' And they understood that, and I had a nice year, a big year and my career took off.

"I'm telling him, 'Hey, let last year go. It happened, it's in the past. Keep working hard, maintain your focus, and you'll be fine.'"

Getting Schwarber right isn't Davis' only task, of course. Despite the Cubs being one of the highest-scoring teams in baseball last season, they had plenty of guys go through subpar seasons. Jason Heyward still has yet to find his offensive game since coming to Chicago as a high-priced free agent. Ben Zobrist was bothered by a wrist injury last season and put up the worst numbers of his career. Addison Russell had trouble staying healthy, as well, and saw his numbers dip from what they were during the World Series season in 2016.

So Davis has plenty of charges to work with. But he likes what he's seen so far.

"They work," Davis said. "They come here to work. I had a group of guys in Boston that were the same last year, and it makes my job easier. They want to get better, they come out every day, they show up, they want to work. They're excited, and I'm excited to be around them.

And what have the Cubs found out about Davis? Just about everyone answers that question the same way: He likes to talk.

"I'm not going to stop talking," he said. "If I stop talking, something's wrong."

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Andre Dawson talks about his Cubs reunion

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USA TODAY

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Andre Dawson talks about his Cubs reunion

Carmen DeFalco (ESPN 1000) and Jordan Bernfield join Kap on the panel. Anthony Rizzo returns to the Cubs after an emotional weekend home while Tom Ricketts expects another World Series parade. Plus Hall of Famer Andre Dawson joins Kap to talk about his Cubs reunion and how the current crop unsigned free agents compares to his experiences with collusion.