Cubs

Cubs’ Kyle Hendricks ready for the next biggest start of his career

Cubs’ Kyle Hendricks ready for the next biggest start of his career

Kyle Hendricks succeeded in the spotlight Oct. 22, taking his methodical, measured mentality into a nervy Game 6 clincher against Los Angeles Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw. The result was 7 1/3 innings of two-hit shutout ball in which the 26-year-old Dartmouth alum faced the minimum to beat a guy many consider the best pitcher in baseball, and it sent the Cubs to their first World Series since 1945.

The playoff stage clearly hasn’t been too big for Hendricks, who led baseball in ERA (2.13) and soft contact rate (25.1 percent) in the regular season. He’s carried that success into October, allowing only three runs over 16 1/3 innings in the 2016 postseason. The way he’s gone about pitching those games and processing the magnitude of them hasn’t been any different than how he worked from April through September. 

“I've never seen him rush through anything,” manager Joe Maddon said. “I’m sure he takes time brushing his teeth. I would imagine his cup of coffee takes two hours to drink.”

Hendricks, who was standing about 20 feet away from Maddon when his manager grinned through those comments Thursday, laughed when he got his turn at the podium: “I don't drink coffee, which probably doesn't come as a shock.”

But that deliberate approach Maddon was alluding to with his coffee comment has helped Hendricks maintain his effectiveness as the playoff pressure has mounted over the last few weeks. 

“It took me a long time to fall into this mindset,” Hendricks said. “You can find yourself falling out of it and falling back into it. A lot of it has to do with confidence, I think. At the end of the day, if you are in that mindset where you're having simple thoughts, really you're on the mound, you know you can clearly recall your game plan, what you're trying to do to this hitter, and then you can simplify your thought and commit to just one pitch. When you have those kind of thoughts going through your head, you feel pretty confident, and you know you're going to do pretty well.”

Hendricks’ changeup has been an outstanding put-away pitch in the postseason, with the right-hander mixing it in well with his four-seam fastball and two-seam sinker. Opposing batters are swinging and missing at 21.7 percent of Hendricks’ changeups, according to TexasLeaguers.com, in his three playoff starts (among Cubs starters in the playoffs, that’s the second-highest whiff rate on any pitch only to John Lackey cutter, which has a 23.7 percent swing-and-miss rate).

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Hendricks, too, has looked extremely comfortable in his starts at Wrigley Field — like that Game 6 outing against the Dodgers — posting a 1.32 ERA while limiting opposing hitters to a .589 OPS at home in the regular season (those numbers were a 2.95 ERA and .643 opponent OPS on the road). 

So the stage is set for Hendricks to make, and succeed in, what will either be his final or second-to-last start of the 2016 season. Friday will mark Hendricks’ first career World Series start, but he hasn’t shown any reason to think the moment will be too big for him. 

“I'm just going to take advantage of it,” Hendricks said. “I mean, how often do you get these opportunities? You dream of it as a kid. This is what you work all year long for.”

Some perspective on Pedro Strop's tough outing and struggles

Some perspective on Pedro Strop's tough outing and struggles

Pedro Strop has had a tough go of it lately, but that doesn't mean it's time to panic on one of the most consistent relievers in Cubs history.

After blowing the game Monday night in San Francisco — his third blown save of the month — Strop now has a 5.47 ERA on the year and an 8.22 mark in July alone. In fact, nearly half the runs he's allowed in 2019 have come this month — 7 of 16.

But Strop has been pitching better than his ERA indicates — his FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) is nearly a full run lower than his ERA this season. His strikeout rate (27.4 percent) and walk rate (8.5 percent) are the lowest they've been since 2016. 

That being said, the 34-year-old has also seen a precipitous spike in hard contact rate and his soft contact percentage is way down. He's been plagued by the home run ball this year more than ever before, serving up 1.7 dingers per 9 innings, the highest rate of his career (though the same can be said for many pitchers this season).

So Strop clearly hasn't been his typical dominant self this year, but he also deserves a better fate than he's had to this point in the season.

Take Monday night, for example. 

Strop came on to pitch the eighth inning of a game the Cubs were leading 4-2 and promptly gave up a leadoff double to Pablo Sandoval. On paper, that's obviously not a great start, but look at where this pitch was when the Giants third baseman hit it:

Strop followed that by striking out Stephen Vogt before executing a nice pitch to Brandon Crawford and inducing a groundball...only to see it sneak through the infield for an RBI hit:

Then came a groundout before Austin Slater's game-tying double that came just inches away from Albert Almora Jr.'s glove in center field. 

The final blow was the go-ahead double by Joe Panik...on a ball that was higher than Strop would've liked it, but still not a bad pitch off the plate outside:

These are not bad pitches; it's not like Strop was leaving the ball over the heart of the plate all inning.

How's this for bad luck — the Sandoval double was pegged for just a .070 expected batting average. 

Crawford's single was hit at 89.7 mph and had an expected batting average of .360. By comparison, Kyle Schwarber hit a grounder in the top of the inning at 102.9 mph with an expected batting average of .630 and it was an out. It was simply a matter of Crawford's ball finding a hole while Schwarber hit his right at a defender. 

No matter which way you slice it, this was a tough luck outing for the veteran setup man. 

But bad luck or not, Strop still hasn't been getting the consistent results the Cubs need in crucial innings of a tight playoff race, so it's understandable manager Joe Maddon was asked about the bullpen usage on his weekly appearance with 670 The Score Tuesday afternoon:

"When Pedro's in the game, I really feel good about it," Maddon said. "We all do. I think last night, it was more about pitch selection than it was necessarily about stuff. He was one pitch away from getting out of that thing. 

"If you replay and look at it, you see the hit by Sandoval — that ball literally almost bounced. It really did and it almost hit his back foot. I don't know how he kept that ball fair, but he did. Good for him. And then Crawford hits a slow ground ball up the middle that gets between two guys that are outstanding infielders and that's a hit."

Maddon went on to say the last hit — Panik's double — was the more concerning one because it was a sinker that just didn't drop enough. Maddon said he'd rather see Strop go to his wicked slider in that situation than lean on a pitch (the sinker/fastball) that has seen a dip in velocity and value this season.

"I don't think Pedro's that far off," Maddon said. "Maybe the velocity's down a little bit more than anything. To utilize his cutter/slider and really get that to where he wants it — those are the devastating pitches. So that was my bigger concern last night."

Moving forward, it doesn't sound as if Maddon will shy away from utilizing Strop in high-leverage situations again, but the Cubs also have the luxury of a pretty deep bullpen where they could utilize some other arms (Steve Cishek, Brandon Kintzler) to pitch the eighth inning and help bridge the gap to closer Craig Kimbrel.

Strop is 34 now and has dealt with some health issues over the last calendar year, but he has such a long track record of success that it wouldn't be surprising to see him once again emerge as a lights-out reliever before the season ends.

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Cubs lead Bears, Bulls on Forbes' Most Valuable Sports Teams 2019 list

Cubs lead Bears, Bulls on Forbes' Most Valuable Sports Teams 2019 list

The Chicago Cubs tied the Washington Redskins for 14th on Forbes' Most Valuable Sports Teams 2019 list with a $3.1 billion valuation. The Cubs' valuation grew by 7% year over year.

The Cubs are the fourth-most valuable franchise in MLB behind the Yankees ($4.1B), the Dodgers ($3.3B) and the Red Sox ($3.2B). Only seven MLB teams made the Top 50.

Two other Chicago teams, the Bears and the Bulls, are tied for 19th on the list with a value of $2.9 billion. The Bears' value grew just 2% while the Bulls' valuation grew by 12% year over year.

The rise of the pro sports teams valued over $2 billion has been pretty meteoric over the past decade. In 2012, only Manchester United was valued over $2 billion and in 2019 that number has risen to 52.

In 2012, only the Knicks and Lakers made the Top 50 list but in 2019 the Bulls are one of nine teams to earn a spot. The Bulls were the fourth-most valuable NBA franchise in 2019 behind the Knicks ($4B), Lakers ($3.7B) and Warriors ($3.5B).

Forbes credits the NBA's international prospects and worldwide revenue growth for the league's rise in the list.

No NHL teams made the list, the New York Rangers were the most-valued hockey team at $1.55 billion, 72nd highest.