From summer camp to late in the season, Kyle Hendricks’ excitement about his curveball never seemed to fade.
“All year long it’s been the best it’s been for me in my career,” Hendricks said last month, echoing comments he’d made before the season.
That very same pitch may help stabilize the Cubs rotation heading into next year.
The Cubs front office, as it has the past couple years, promised change this offseason.
“We're at a period of real transition,” Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein said in his end-of-season press conference last week. “Some of these guys are going to be part of the solution in the next productive Cubs offense, and there's also going to be contributions from guys who are not in the organization right now.”
With the market and the future of the Cubs’ championship core uncertain, the top of the Cubs rotation seems more secure. Both Hendricks and Yu Darvish are under club control for multiple seasons, on cost-effective deals.
“Those guys are our foundation now for our rotation,” Epstein said.
You see, Epstein didn’t promise a full tear down. Not at all.
“Is it possible to thread the needle and improve in 2021 and while also setting ourselves up for the long-term future?” Epstein said. “I think it is.”
Having, as Cubs manager David Ross called Darvish and Hendricks, “two aces” almost ensures that a team will remain competitive, even during a transition phase.
Hendricks was already a solid foundational piece entering this season, as arguably the Cubs’ most consistent pitcher over the previous four years. But this year, he trimmed his ERA to under 3.00 (2.88) for the first time since 2016 (2.13). His development raised the floor for next year’s group.
“Getting away from being that two-pitch guy,” Hendricks said, “throw in another wrinkle, it opens up the rest of my game.”
This season, Hendricks was more comfortable using his curveball in a variety of counts. Though he was more inclined to throw the breaking ball when he was ahead in the count or even, Hendricks threw it in three-ball (4.4 percent) and two-strike (19.5 percent) counts more than ever in his career, according to Baseball Savant.
While the curveball itself was an effective pitch, Hendricks’ changeup became more productive alongside it. His change caused more hitters to swing and miss (24.4 whiff percentage to 29.8) this season compared to last. And when they did hit his changeup, they hit the ball on the ground more often (39.6 percent to 48.3).
Plus, the curveball gave Hendricks another off-speed option when teams were sitting on his changeup. He and catcher Willson Contreras noticed that the Twins were taking that exact approach last month. So, they mixed in the curveball more frequently. Hendricks shut out the Twins for eight innings.
“When I see an opportunity to throw a lot of them,” Hendricks said of the curveball that night, “I’m not shying away from it anymore.”
If, as Epstein said, Hendricks does remain a foundational piece in the Cubs rotation, entering 2021, no one can accuse the Cubs’ second ace of being a two-pitch pitcher.