As Cubs advance, will Kyle Hendricks’ game work in the playoffs?

As Cubs advance, will Kyle Hendricks’ game work in the playoffs?

CINCINNATI – Is this sustainable? Can Kyle Hendricks dominate hitters in October the way he controlled lineups during the regular season? The Cubs are about to find out. 

“I don’t see why not,” manager Joe Maddon said. “Everything’s there.”

The Cubs aren’t an invincible team, but they have the National League’s strongest, deepest roster. The transformation of Hendricks from a No. 5 starter into a Cy Young Award contender helps explain why the Cubs won 103 games and head into the postseason with a World Series-or-bust attitude. 

“This is the day we’ve been waiting for,” Hendricks said after Sunday’s 7-4 comeback victory over the Reds at Great American Ball Park. “Now that we’re here, none of that means anything. The playoffs is what it’s all about. If you go out first round – that’s all that matters – you’re done.”

Hendricks killed hitters softly and earned that Game 2 slot in the rotation – against either the defending NL champion Mets or even-year Giants – with a breakthrough performance that saw him capture the ERA title (2.13), become a 16-game winner and reach the 190-inning mark.    

“Hendricks has had a very good season,” an NL Central scout said. “It’s just a little different in the playoffs with a command-and-control guy with limited margin for error.”

Precision is Hendricks’ trademark, but he didn’t have it in the first inning against this Cincinnati lineup, hitting Scott Schebler with a pitch to load the bases and then walking in the game’s first run after a five-pitch at-bat against Eugenio Suarez. That forced pitching coach Chris Bosio to hold a conference on the mound. Tucker Barnhart then knocked a two-out, two-run single into right field, pushing Hendricks’ major-league leading ERA over 2.00.

But Hendricks has been so remarkably consistent, always keeping his team in the game. This snapped a streak of 22 straight starts where the right-hander allowed three earned runs or fewer. Those four runs matched a season-high. He also lasted five innings, something he’s done 30 times through 30 starts.

“You can’t disregard the results,” an NL West scout said. “From a pure scouting standpoint, the changeup is obviously better than just like above-average. It’s probably more of an elite-type changeup. When you fill out all the boxes, it’s nothing (extraordinary). But when you look at the guy’s ability just to make pitches – and his feel to pitch – it’s in that elite category.

“When you got this one weapon, that changeup’s in the back of everybody’s mind. And it kind of makes everything else better.”

Hendricks doesn’t have the same arsenal, name recognition or bank account as San Francisco’s frontline guys. Hendricks certainly didn’t experience the same hype that followed New York’s young power pitchers (and some are now recovering from season-ending surgeries).

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But this is what happens when you combine a Dartmouth College education with an intricate game-planning system, an elite defense and a snowballing sense of confidence. The Cubs won’t hesitate to give Hendricks the ball on Oct. 8 at Wrigley Field.

“I will admit – I’ve always undervalued him,” the NL West scout said. “He’s obviously a Cy Young candidate this year. He’s probably not that front-of-the-rotation starter at the end of the day. But he’s way better than people give him credit for.

“The guy obviously has a lot inside that you can’t quantify. I think the true test for him (will be): Can he match up (in the playoffs)?”

Hendricks says “definitely,” even if he never expected to here at this point in his young career.

“They’re also going to have to go up against our lineup,” Hendricks said, “so that’s always a big plus in our column. I’m just going to go out there with the same thing I’ve been doing, focusing on my game, simple thoughts and attacking whatever lineup it is.”



Remember that guy? Former Cubs shortstop Ricky Gutiérrez

Remember that guy? Former Cubs shortstop Ricky Gutiérrez

Ricky Gutiérrez played in the Majors from 1993-2004. He played shortstop for the Cubs from 2000-01 and later signed with them again in June 2004. 

However, Gutiérrez never got back to the Majors with the Cubs, who sent him to the Red Sox the following month. His final Major League game was with the Red Sox on Oct. 3, 2004, the final game of the 2004 regular season; he didn’t play in the 2004 postseason. Gutiérrez was subsequently signed and released by a few other teams, including the White Sox in 2005.

Gutiérrez holds the distinction of being the first Cubs player to hit a regular season grand slam against the White Sox (July 12, 2001). In his two seasons with the Cubs, he tied for the Major League lead in sacrifice bunts both years (16 in 2000, 17 in 2001) which was odd since he had a grand total of 18 sacrifice bunts in his 847 career games NOT in a Cubs uniform. He also had uncharacteristic power with the Cubs:  21 home runs for Chicago in 272 games, 17 home runs with everyone else (847 games).

What Cubs fans probably remember most is what Gutiérrez did against them. On May 6, 1998 he had the lone hit (many dispute it should have been ruled an error) for the Astros off Kerry Wood in Wood’s 20-strikeout masterpiece at Wrigley Field (Gutiérrez was responsible for two of the strikeouts). 

Later that season, on June 26, the number 20 and Gutiérrez were again connected when he had a 20-pitch battle against Bartolo Colón, which ended in a strikeout. It remained the last plate appearance in the Majors of at least 20 pitches until Brandon Belt flew out on the 21st pitch of an at-bat against the Angels' Jaime Barria on April 22, 2018.

Gutiérrez’s nephew, James Jones, played 14 seasons in the NBA for the Pacers, Suns, Trail Blazers, Heat and Cavaliers.

2019 encore for Jesse Chavez?


2019 encore for Jesse Chavez?

On July 15, Brandon Morrow recorded his 22nd save of the season with a scoreless inning in San Diego. It wound up being the last time he pitched in a game for the Cubs in 2018. 

Four days later, during the All-Star break, the Cubs made a move to bolster their bullpen, acquiring Jesse Chavez from the Rangers in exchange for minor league hurler Tyler Thomas. It wasn’t even the biggest trade they’d make with the Rangers that month – a little over a week later they dealt for Cole Hamels. 

Despite pitching nearly half the innings, Chavez was almost as valuable as Hamels.

2018 with Cubs IP fWAR
Jesse Chavez 39.0 1.1
Cole Hamels 76.1 1.5

Chavez made his Cubs debut on July 21; from July 21 through the end of the season, 187 pitchers tossed at least 30 innings. 185 of them had a higher ERA than Chavez, while 184 of them allowed more baserunners per 9 innings.

Best ERA, July 21-end of season

(minimum 30 innings) IP ERA
Blake Treinen 32.1 0.56
Jesse Chavez 39.0 1.15
Blake Snell 61.2 1.17
Trevor Bauer 35.0 1.29
Trevor Williams 71.2 1.38
Robert Stock 36.0 1.50

Fewest baserunners per 9 innings, July 32-end of season

(minimum 30 innings) IP BR/9 IP
Blake Treinen 32.1 5.85
Blake Snell 61.2 7.15
Jesse Chavez 39.0 7.15
Jacob deGrom 93.2 7.49
Scott Oberg 30.2 7.63
Josh Hader 33.1 7.83

But how did Chavez transform into one of Joe Maddon’s best bullpen arms down the stretch?  According to Chavez, his own transformation started on Mother’s Day.

Chavez entered a game in Houston with a 5.48 ERA in a dozen appearances, but pitched three innings with no hits, no walks and four strikeouts. From that point through the end of the season, he posted a 1.70 ERA and 0.892 WHIP. 

Chavez points to a change in arm slot which resulted in better consistency and a slight jump in velocity. A glance at his release point charts show that consistency, and he added roughly one mile an hour to his fastball.

"It's kept me more consistent in the zone," Chavez said. "Things have been sharper, velocity has been a lot sharper. I was huffing and puffing trying to get a 92 (mph fastball) out there and it wasn't coming.

"Next thing you know, I dropped it and it's right there, and I'm like, 'something's wrong here.' But I just took it and ran with it."

Jesse Chavez 2018 four-seam fastball velocity

  Average Max
Prior to May 13 92.6 mph 94.6 mph
May 13 on 93.6 mph 95.7 mph

Can Chavez be valuable in 2019?  The 35-year old reliever posted the best ERA (2.55), WHIP (1.059) and walk rate (4.5% - nearly two percent better than his previous best) in 2018, and he continued to get better as the season went on. 

He’s a former starter who can pitch multiple innings if needed, and that’s a valuable thing - especially for a manager like Joe Maddon, who uses his pitchers in a variety of ways. It’s unlikely he’ll have a second consecutive career year.

But he’ll likely be well worth the price tag; he only made $1 million in 2018, and even with a slight raise he should be very affordable. There’s definitely room in Maddon’s bullpen for a pitcher like Chavez.