The Cubs have had some problems with their starting pitching this year. Between Tyler Chatwood's issues throwing strikes, Yu Darvish's elbow impingement, and Jose Quintana's frequent nibbling, they've been a frustrating group on the whole. Cubs starters are 16th in Major League Baseball with a 4.08 ERA and have the second-most walks, trailing only the Chicago White Sox.
It's something that management is very aware of, and there's a strong belief that it has to turn around at some point. Joe Maddon sees a few simple reasons for the struggles of the rotation in 2018.
“For me, it's just bad counts,” said Maddon. “We're not dominating 1-1. I don't know that for a fact but I'd have to look at that. I think 1-1 is turning into 2-1 way too often, we're not getting early count outs like we normally could. I think those are two big issues for us, hitters are seeing too many pitches. And then that dovetails into 100 pitches after five innings a lot of times.”
Kyle Hendricks has played his part in the pitching frustrations, as well. The former National League Cy Young candidate comes into his start on Sunday with a 4.05 ERA, which is the highest of his four-year career. Hendricks has thrown 120 innings, allowing more hits, walks and overall base-runners than ever while posting his lowest strikeout rate since his rookie season.
Over his last 10 starts, Hendricks has a 5.16 ERA with 59 hits and just 43 strikeouts in 52 2/3 innings. This, from a guy who had a 2.51 ERA in 54 starts the last two seasons. But the good news, according to Hendricks, is that he figured out what was wrong and is confident that his struggles are behind him.
“I had a month to five weeks where it was a mechanical issue, just searching for things,” said Hendricks. “But over my last four-five starts, definitely my last four starts, it's felt way better. Mechanically, I feel really good.”
It appeared as though Hendricks' stride and landing position were a bit off during the recent stretch, which is something he neither confirmed, nor denied. He did say, however, that the real culprit mechanically has been his position on the rubber.
“It was more over the rubber. I was just quick, I was never in a good position over the rubber,” he said. “Balanced, and my posture kind of changing over the rubber, so I couldn't find my lane. Directionally, I was kind of coming around it instead of working down the mound and to the catcher, you know?
“So as soon as I got stronger on my back side, that started helping things a lot. Just give myself a little more time over the rubber to gather, strong on my back side, and then I started finding my lane from there.”
The movement on his pitches has certainly looked better recently. It started with a game in San Francisco on July 9 in which he went 8 1/3 innings, allowing five hits, one walk, and one run (unearned) while striking out eight batters. In the recent four-game stretch, he has a 3.13 ERA in 23 innings with 23 strikeouts and just four walks.
But it hasn't been all sunshine and roses. The most recent problem for Hendricks has been racking up a high pitch-count early, something that he has done in each of his last two starts. Against the St. Louis Cardinals on July 19, Hendricks left after 4 2/3 innings and 113 pitches. In his most recent start against the Arizona Diamondbacks, he threw 106 pitches over five innings.
With batters suddenly content to wait Hendricks out, he knows that it's on him to make the adjustment.
“It's something we've been talking about,” said Hendricks. “Something I have to feel when I'm out there, I have to make those in-game adjustments just a little bit quicker. When I realize guys are just kind of taking anything that appears down, just being more aggressive in the strike zone. You know, there's things that I can do to combat it. I just need to realize what those things are quicker than I'm doing right now.”
For his part, Maddon isn't concerned about the pitch-counts leading to fatigue later in the season.
“I'm looking at average number of pitches per game, and right now Kyle is right on his number,” said Maddon. “Quintana is right there, Jonny's good. All the guys are good, so nobody should feel taxed going into August and September. Which is a good thing.”
Jon Lester has been outstanding for the most part this year, and the hope is that Cole Hamels – who has struggled recently – will be rejuvenated by coming to a contender. But for the Cubs to have a shot at winning a second World Series in three years, they need Hendricks to be closer to the guy he was in 2016. They need the guy who has a 2.88 ERA in 10 career postseason starts.
Hendricks is confident that it's on its way.
“I mean, it's not perfect, it's not locked in where I have been in the past,” he said. “But at least I have a chance now. I know where it's going, and I can feel what I'm doing and make that adjustment. Whereas, over that month stretch I just felt lost. Everything was just all over the place and I didn't really know what to fix when the ball would do something.
“At least now I have consistent movement on my fastball and really all my other pitches too. When I miss with a pitch, I know what the adjustment is that I need to make.”