By Chris Emma–
CHICAGO (CBS) — With another strong start in the books, Cubs right-hander Kyle Hendricks was fired up.
Well, as excited as Hendricks can get in-game. Manager Joe Maddon recalled a momentary smile, a handshake, a nod and even a slight chuckle. But that’s now the extent of Hendricks breaking his form.
After a rough start to his 2017, Hendricks again looks like the pitcher from 2016. On Wednesday, he pitched six innings and allowed two earned runs with the wind gusting out at 24 miles per hour at Wrigley Field. One earned run came due to Billy Hamilton’s speed, another was a home run blown out with a launch angle and exit velocity never before to reach the stands in Statcast history.
Hendricks controlled the game and earned his team its 7-5 win over the Reds. Finally, the Cubs are looking like the Cubs again. Is Hendricks back to being Hendricks?
“Much closer,” he replied.
Of course, Hendricks has the right to be demanding of himself. He had a 2.13 ERA last season, baseball’s best mark.
Hendricks went from the Cubs’ fifth starter to a quiet, unassuming Cy Young candidate. He was the man who pitched the Cubs to the National League pennant and toed the rubber for Game 7 of the World Series. The rise of Hendricks was a remarkable story last season.
“It’s hard to repeat last season,” catcher Miguel Montero said. “We got to be realistic. He’s doing a great job right now. As long as he keeps us in the game and gives us an opportunity to win, I think that’s the whole idea.”
Don’t tell that to Hendricks, who expects to be great each time out.
Hendricks was disappointed in himself after his third start of the season on April 19, one in which he allowed four earned runs in five innings to the Brewers. His ERA spiked to 6.19 in the process. The greater concern was that his fastball velocity had dropped considerably from its usual 88 miles per hour down to 84, and the differential between his four-seam fastball and changeup was minimal.
“I just don’t feel strong out there,” Hendricks said after that start.
Now, the fastball and sinker are hitting 87 and the changeup is back to being effective. Maddon operated with a quick trigger on Hendricks, which may have helped preserve his arm strength. Hendricks can certainly feel better about his game.
The story of Hendricks is unique because he’s not an overpowering pitcher, not by any means. He dominates with deception. The Dartmouth product is crafty with his pitch selection, mixing off-speed pitches at a near-even velocity to fool hitters.
But Hendricks also has little room for error with his game because of his velocity. He doesn’t have the Chris Sale slider or Noah Syndergaard fastball to get out of trouble. Hendricks requires precision on the mound to find success. The fact his velocity had dropped to the low 80s was concerning. It now seems to have been a brief issue.
On Wednesday night, with the wind gusting out, Hendricks had a 52.6 percent groundball rate against some powerful Reds bats. That followed an outing last Thursday in which he worked 5 1/3 shutout innings in the hitters paradise of Coors Field. Hendricks had a 62.5 groundball rate in that outing.
After the ERA sprung, Hendricks has registered five consecutive outings of two earned runs or fewer. Wednesday was another example of a pitcher with his form.
“He was really good,” Maddon said. “Velocity was up. You saw the bad takes, bad swings. Contact wasn’t as hard.
“He knew it was right tonight. That’s a great game for him to build off of.”
Hendricks has his work cut out to top 2016, but the bar was set quite high. Finally, he has found his form and is again resembling the player who pitched the Cubs into the World Series. Perhaps the early struggles were just a blip.
At the least, the even-keeled Hendricks is smiling about his performance.