By Chris Emma–
CHICAGO (CBS) — During a magical 2016 season for the World Series champion Cubs, the story of Kyle Hendricks captivated baseball.
His rise from quiet, unassuming fifth starter to crafty, dominating Cy Young candidate was a key part of the Cubs’ run to the championship. Hendricks was the man on the mound starting the Game 7 victory, an unlikely culmination in a unique story.
The means by which Hendricks has found success is well documented. His arsenal has included a fastball around 88 mph, a changeup at 80, a sinker to deceive between his heater and off-speed and a curveball as an out pitch. He has found a way to overpower without overpowering stuff.
On Wednesday, Hendricks allowed four earned runs and two homers in five innings of his team’s 7-4 walk-off win over the Brewers at Wrigley Field. Addison Russell saved the day with a two-out, three-run home run in the bottom of the ninth inning. The Cubs celebrated at the plate, and Hendricks was all smiles after the victory.
But he soon moved from the excitement of a win to acknowledging his mechanical issues.
“I just got to find the right balance right now,” Hendricks admitted. “I just don’t feel strong out there.”
Hendricks has a 6.19 ERA after leading the big leagues with a 2.13 mark last season. This latest start brought the continuation of an alarming trend for Hendricks. His fastball velocity has continued to drop, hovering around 84 his last two starts. During last Friday’s outing against the Pirates, his fastball averaged at 84.97 and the changeup was at 78.21.
On Wednesday, Brewers third baseman Travis Shaw opened up the scoring in the first inning with a home run on a changeup at 78.1 miles per hour. In the second, catcher Jett Bandy worked a seven-pitch at-bat and belted a changeup at 79.1 to the bleachers. They weren’t fooled.
Hendricks has seen his fastball drop down to 84, which in turn offsets the effectiveness of his off-speed pitch. Cubs manager Joe Maddon took note of his top speed, a fastball at 86 to make the upstart Eric Thames miss.
But Hendricks has appeared uncomfortable at times, left nibbling the corners for strikes. In the third inning, he had right fielder Hernan Perez down 1-2, then threw three straight sinkers at 84 just off the plate. Umpire Chris Guccione wouldn’t budge. In the fourth, he walked pitcher Tommy Milone on four pitches.
Yes, it’s only April and the Cubs have played just 15 games — now 8-7 after winning two out of three to the Brewers at home — but it’s worth wondering why Hendricks has seen such a drop in velocity. There’s no injury, Maddon and Hendricks both insisted.
“Right now, there’s not a dramatic separation between the (fastball and changeup), and that’s where the disconnect is for him now,” Maddon said. “I’m fully confident that he’s going to get that uptick in velocity back, and then you see that greater separation. Then you see the bad swings.”
Hendricks believes that extra throwing work in recent weeks has played a part in his mechanics slipping. Maddon has flipped starters Jon Lester and Jake Arrieta for their starts next week. Perhaps an extra day for Hendricks could be beneficial, too.
Last season, Hendricks had his fastball averaging 87.83 in the month of April, which proved to be his worst month of a special season. He recorded a 3.91 ERA in four starts, then settled into a dominant form.
Here, Hendricks has another slow start, though this one more troubling after what he accomplished last season.
“I got to get my arm strength feeling I can step on it when I can, get the velocity back, and then from there my changeup will just play off it,” Hendricks said. “Right now, (I’ll) worry about the fastball, get the velocity back, the movement, location and go from there.”
During his clutch postseason, Hendricks had the fastball averaging at 89, the sinker at 88 and the changeup at 80. He was in command, never more than his shutout victory in the Cubs pennant-clinching Game 6 win over the Dodgers at Wrigley Field.
It’s more than likely the touch off Hendricks’ fastball is just temporary. He could very well revert back to form as that clutch arm from a special season. But these mechanical issues first must be managed.
The Cubs are counting on Hendricks to help them win another World Series.