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.”

Cubs free agent focus: Will Harris

Cubs free agent focus: Will Harris

With Hot Stove season underway, NBC Sports Chicago is taking a look at some of MLB’s top free agents and how they’d fit with the Cubs.

The Cubs are looking for bullpen help this offseason. Enter Astros free agent right-hander Will Harris.

Harris has quietly been one of the game’s best relievers since 2015. In 309 games (297 innings), the 35-year-old holds a 2.36 ERA and 0.987 WHIP. Over that same period, his ERA ranks third among relievers with at least 250 innings pitched, trailing Zack Britton (1.89) and Aroldis Chapman (2.16).

2019 was one of Harris' finest seasons yet, as he posted a pristine 1.50 ERA and 0.933 WHIP in 68 appearances. Of the 60 innings he pitched last season, 49 2/3 of them came in innings 7-9, an area the Cubs bullpen needs the most help.

Cubs relievers posted a 3.98 ERA last season (No. 8 in MLB), but that number is deceiving. The bullpen was OK in low and medium-leverage spots — as defined by FanGraphs — posting a 3.19 ERA (tied for No. 2 in MLB). But in high leverage spots, they sported a woeful 7.92 ERA (No. 24 in MLB) and a 15.4 percent walk rate (tied for last in MLB).

"It was a real interesting year in the 'pen," Cubs president Theo Epstein said at his end-of-season press conference. "Our inability to pitch in high-leverage situations was a clear problem and was a contributing factor — we had the third-worst record in all of baseball behind just the Tigers and Orioles in combined 1 and 2-run games.

"Our inability to pitch in high-leverage moments kind of haunted us throughout the year, and that’s something that I have to do a better job of finding options for."

Those walks often spelled doom for the Cubs. Fans remember all too well the three-straight free passes Steve Cishek handed out on Sept. 10 against the Padres, the final of which was a walk-off (literally). David Phelps and Cishek combined to walk three-straight Cardinals on Sept. 20, two of whom came around to score. The Cubs lost that game 2-1; there are plenty more similar instances.

Harris, meanwhile, walked 14 batters (6.1 percent walk rate) in 2019 — 15 if you count the one he allowed in 12 postseason appearances. His career walk rate is 6.2 percent.

Four Cubs late-inning relievers are free agent this winter in Cishek, Brandon Kintzler, Brandon Morrow and Pedro Strop. Cishek and Kintzler had solid 2019 seasons, while Strop had his worst season as a Cub. Morrow hasn’t pitched since July 2018, but he and the Cubs are working on a minor league deal, according to WSCR’s Bruce Levine. Strop has expressed his desire to return next season.

Harris regressing in 2020 is a concern. Relievers are the most volatile players in baseball, and Harris could see his performance sag in 2020 after pitching an extra month last season. Teams will have to trust his track record and assume a regression isn't forthcoming.

But assuming Cishek, Kintzler, Morrow and Strop all won’t return in 2020, the Cubs have a couple late-inning relief vacancies. Harris is one of the better available options, and he’d help the Cubs cut down on the walks dished out by their bullpen.

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Cubs add reliever Daniel Winkler in another low-risk, high-reward move


Cubs add reliever Daniel Winkler in another low-risk, high-reward move

The Cubs have made another low-risk gamble on a bullpen arm.

Friday, the Cubs announced they've signed right-hander Daniel Winkler to a one-year deal worth $750K. The deal is a split contract, meaning Winkler will earn a different salary in the major leagues than if he gets sent to the minor leagues. He has one minor league option remaining. 

Winkler, an Effingham, Ill. native holds a career 3.68 ERA, 3.65 FIP, 1.176 WHIP and 10.3 K/9 in 117 games (100 1/3 innings). He spent 2015-19 with the Atlanta Braves, undergoing Tommy John surgery in June 2014 and another elbow surgery in April 2017. The Braves dealt him to the San Francisco Giants at the 2019 trade deadline for closer Mark Melancon.

Winkler posted a 4.98 ERA in 27 big league games last season and a 2.93 ERA in 30 minor league games. His best MLB season came with the Braves in 2018, as he made a career-high 69 appearances and posted a 3.43 ERA, striking out 69 batters in 60 1/3 innings.

The Cubs entered the offseason in search of bullpen upgrades following a rough 2019. That search includes finding pitchers who may not have long track records, but qualities demonstrating their ability to make an impact at the big-league level. In this case, Winkler possesses solid spin rates on his cutter, four-seamer and curveball, meaning he induces soft contact and swings and misses.

“We need to keep unearthing pitchers who we acquire for the right reasons, we work well with and have the physical and mental wherewithal to go out and miss a lot of bats,” Cubs president Theo Epstein said at his end-of-season press conference, “which is something we didn’t do a lot of — although we did increasingly in the second half with this pitching group — and find more guys who can go out and pitch in high-leverage spots."

The Cubs were successful in unearthing arms last season, acquiring Rowan Wick and Brad Wieck from the Padres in separate deals. They recently acquired Jharel Cotton from the Oakland A’s in a similar buy low move.

Not every pitcher will be as successful as the Wi(e)cks were last season, but the Cubs must continue making low-risk bullpen moves. At the best, they find a legitimate relief arms; at the worst, they move on from a low-cost investments.

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