Spiegel: Cubs’ Kyle Hendricks Is The Truly Unique NL Cy Young Front-Runner

By Matt Spiegel–

(CBS) Cubs right-hander Kyle Hendricks is a gem.

Sifting through the sand of myriad power pitching arms, most destined to one day explode under the irrational punishment inflicted upon the elbow, we have found a gem.

Hendricks is dominant, via finesse. He’s not a “max effort” thrower letting it fly at 100 percent all the time, because he learned that his 100 percent doesn’t work. He used to throw 95 mph in college at Dartmouth, but success in the minors didn’t follow suit.

Now in a breakout season in which he has gone from the Cubs’ fifth starter to their best pitcher, he’s the tangible proof that smarts, preparation, movement and pinpoint control can still flummox big league hitters.

Hendricks took a no-hitter into the ninth inning in St. Louis on Monday night. Before a home run ended the bid and his night, the league’s best ERA had dropped to 1.98. He now is 15-7 with a 2.03 ERA for the season.

Strikeouts are titillating, and 97 mph heat is arousing. A sub-2.00 ERA is downright sexy.

Forget the radar gun for a moment and admire the season on its own. Hendricks hasn’t allowed more than four runs in any of his 27 starts. He has given his team a chance to win every time he’s been handed the ball, without a single dud.

Cubs radio play-by-play man Pat Hughes did some research and on Monday night on 670 The Score, he shared some incredible context.

If Hendricks gets to 30 starts without allowing five runs in any of them, he will become just the fourth pitcher since 1913 to do so. Tyson Ross did it last year with the Padres, (no wonder Theo Epstein openly coveted him at the trade deadline), Phil Ortega had a season like that in 1967 with the Senators and White Sox legend Billy Pierce did it in 1960.

That’s it. Three seasons of 30-plus starts while never allowing more than four runs even once in 103 years. Hendricks needs three more outings to join them.

Some of us look eagerly for these relatively powerless pitchers. We want to believe you can still win being more artist than lumberjack.

When Hendricks was in the midst of his 13-start, 2.46-ERA debut in late 2014, the mind reeled with possibilities. Barry Rozner and I made cautious Greg Maddux associations on the air, noticing the similar shape of their two-seam fastballs and copious use of the change-up. I referenced Hendricks in a piece about effective velocity, having noticed him as an emerging practitioner.

After 72 starts now, his career ERA stands at 2.91. Hendricks has showcased some staying power.

Among his peers, this level of success without elite velocity truly stands alone.

Chris Kamka, the fine statistician and researcher at Comcast SportsNet Chicago, helped me dig into some numbers to find who might be in Hendricks’ unique company.

Let’s look at active starting pitchers with between 400 and 600 innings pitched and at least 50 starts. Using Hendricks’ career ERA as the midpoint, here are the pitchers within half a run in either direction. (Note: Click to enlarge the chart.)

spiegel chart 7 Spiegel: Cubs Kyle Hendricks Is The Truly Unique NL Cy Young Front Runner

That’s a group of mostly young, established, excellent starters. And on the far right, there’s each pitcher’s average four-seam fastball velocity, according to Brooks Baseball.

Kyle Hendricks is the only one below 90 mph. No one is even within 2.5 mph. Five of the other 10 have him outgunned by at least 5 mph.

As a side note, six of those other 10 have had at least one Tommy John surgery.

Rather than the relative lack of strikeouts working against Hendricks in awards voting, I think his effectiveness without them is growing more impressive. Hendricks leads the league this season in soft-hit rate among starters (25.5 percent) and has the second-lowest hard-hit rate (25.3 percent, with figures via FanGraphs). His ability to elicit weak contact is measurable and can’t simply be attributed entirely to the elite defense behind him.

I don’t believe statistical data elevates Nationals right-hander Max Scherzer from Hendricks profoundly. And I also admit what Cubs manager Joe Maddon on Tuesday referred to as “that everyman feeling” when it comes to Hendricks.  Not gifted with a legendary arm? Just work harder, have a smarter plan and you can hang with the very best. If he can toy with big league hitters, then we can be great in spite of physical or logistical barriers.

Kyle Hendricks is a victory for the brain. I’ve celebrated him, as much for the way he’s done it as for the achievements themselves.

Weeks ago, Maddon was asked to explain Hendricks’ excellence. He said it was “theory meeting reality,” to a remarkable level.

Theory meets reality. Now, appealing style meets indisputably successful substance.

And Kyle Hendricks should meet Cy Young.

Matt Spiegel is a host on the Spiegel and Goff Show on 670 The Score from 9 a.m.-1 p.m. on weekdays. Follow him on Twitter @MattSpiegel670.

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