A rookie Kyle Hendricks would sit next to Jake Arrieta in the dugout, and together they’d break down opposing hitters' swings.
“It was just small things like that, you're watching the games together and talking about it,” Hendricks recalled this week. “And then outside the field, just hanging out and learning how to be a pro.”
Now, seven years later, Hendricks is scheduled to make his second Opening Day start in a row. He’ll pass Arrieta in number of Cubs Opening Day starts and match the 2015 Cy Young winner’s total on any team.
Asked if he was prepared to rub in that accomplishment, Hendricks grinned.
“I'm definitely not prepared to do that,” he said. “He was one of the guys, really, I learned so much from my first few years here. He took me under his wing. So, I think he doesn't care, and I don't care. We’re just so excited to be able to pitch alongside each other again and do such a good job of pushing each other to keep making each other better.”
When the Cubs signed Arrieta as a free agent last month, they fortified their starting pitching with a second member of their 2016 World Series rotation. But this time round, roles have shifted. Hendricks and Arrieta are both veteran leaders. And now Hendricks is the clear ace.
“I tell this to young kids all over the place,” Arrieta said, “if you want to try and emulate somebody, you should emulate Kyle Hendricks. Obviously, this game is infatuated with high velocity and spin rate, and all those things are great. But you watch a guy like Kyle pitch, and it gives just about anybody hope that they could eventually one day do what he's doing.”
Hendricks, now with back-to-back Opening Day nods and a career 3.12 ERA has become the poster child of command/control pitchers in new-age baseball. He’s been invaluably consistent for the Cubs over the past five years. In 2016 – when Arrieta took the ball on Opening Day – Hendricks had the best ERA in MLB (2.13).
Now in a transition year, the Cubs are leaning on their pitching infrastructure’s success with Hendricks and a belief that they can replicate it. Zach Davies, who the Cubs acquired from the Padres in the Yu Darvish trade, and Alec Mills have Hendricks-like arsenals. Trevor Williams, who is working to recapture his 2018 progress, throws in the high 80s and low 90s.
It’s only fitting that Cubs manager David Ross would choose Hendricks to set the tone for this rotation to start the season.
“He's extremely deserving of Opening Day,” Arrieta said. “I've always been a huge fan of his, and I look forward to working alongside him again this year. He's just an extremely good example for everybody who aspires to be a major league baseball player, and I’m fortunate to call him a really good friend of mine and a teammate again.”
In the past couple years, younger pitchers have gravitated to Hendricks, sparking some of the same kinds of conversations he had with Arrieta years ago. But Hendricks said he hasn’t had an ‘I’m that guy now’ moment.
“I don't ever look at myself that way,” he said.
And yet, here he is, passing Arrieta in Cubs Opening Day starts.