If you surveyed 100 Cubs fans to find out who they believed was the most consistent Cubs pitcher over the last five seasons, Kyle Hendricks would likely emerge as the favorite. No disrespect to Jon Lester, but Father Time has been on his backside for a while. Since his first full season in 2015, Hendricks ranks 14th among 166 qualified starters with a 3.21 ERA and he’s 13th with 17.5 fWAR. His 0.92 HR/9 rate is 15th, his 2.06 BB/9 is 20th, and his 3.55 FIP is 24th.
By most accounts, Hendricks is as steady as they come. When you drill down deeper into his performances over the last few seasons, however, you find areas for improvement. The 30-year-old has dealt with injuries that have forced him to alter his mechanics, leading to periods during which he’s struggled to maintain his trademark command.
He has been notoriously streaky early in the season, posting a career 4.29 ERA in March/April that dips to 2.64 in May before jumping back to 4.63 in June. A similar trend can be seen within games, particularly with the way he’s had to navigate the First Inning of Death. Hendricks has a career 4.39 ERA in the first frame, but that mark spiked to 6.82 in 2018 and was at 9.00 through his first five outings of 2019.
Then he conquered the FIOD by throwing a Maddux against the Cardinals and finishing the season with a 1.80 ERA over 25 innings the rest of the way. Even though the aggregate is all that matters in the end, Hendricks knows that the best way to perform at the highest possible level is to avoid having to feel his way around early in the regular season.
“I changed a few things, for sure,” Hendricks explained from his locker at Sloan Park. “You know, I didn’t like the trend I was going the last two years or so, so I changed a lot of my offseason program as far as training. And then I started playing a lot of catch, started throwing earlier in the offseason this year.
“So just started getting ready, getting prepared earlier, and tried to come into spring really ready to go and take advantage of all this time also just to get better and not just try to get ready.”
Hendricks told media members that he changed the focus of his workouts to include more functional movement and “new school” strength work in an attempt to be more athletic and less mechanical. As with any form of training, the ultimate goal is injury prevention. While neither the finger issue that limited his innings in 2017 nor the shoulder impingement that slowed him last season were career-threatening, even minor maladies can have major impact on a pitcher of Hendricks’ ilk.
One of the game’s foremost practitioners of pitch tunneling, or throwing all of his offerings down the same invisible cylinder, Hendricks relies heavily on deception. That’s a requirement for a guy whose 86.9 mph average fastball isn’t nice enough to blow hitters away. So just the slightest tweak to his mechanics can eliminate his margin for error and have him reeling from hard contact.
It sounds obvious to the point of being borderline ridiculous, but Hendricks’ desire to “get better and not just try to get ready” is representative of the whole vibe around this year’s camp. The Cubs had taken things a little less seriously over the past two or three years, something David Ross is being very intentional about changing.
Will that end up being more than just fodder for blog posts? I certainly hope so, but I guess we’ll find out for sure over the next few months.