More often than not, starting a conversation with a major league ballplayer about advanced statistics will lead to their eyes glassing over as they find a way to wriggle out of such a tedious conversation. Some will laugh mockingly, pointing out that they don’t need to know those types of things to succeed at their jobs.
The fact is, they’re right. Delving into the numbers isn’t a player’s job. In most cases, it’s more likely to confuse a player than to enlighten him. Their job is to go out and perform on the field to the best of their capabilities, and leave the number crunching to the guys with Ivy League degrees in the front office. Filling a player’s heads with statistical information may not be the best way for the vast majority of players to reach their potential.
Of course, there are exceptions, like Max Scherzer, Brandon McCarthy, Craig Breslow and a few others around the league. But the fact is, they’re few and far between, and, outside of a few months of Scott Feldman, there haven’t been many in the Cubs clubhouse in the recent past.
That could change this summer if Kyle Hendricks gets his way. Hendricks, who wrapped up a degree in economics from Dartmouth this offseason, immediately lit up when the topic of advanced stats was brought up to him at the Cubs Convention this past January. However, he did admit it’s certainly not for everyone.
“It can definitely be too much,” Hendricks said. “But what you basically gotta do is go through it and see what works for you. It’s kind of like with a pitching coach, they’re gonna give you mechanical things and you gotta find what works for you with that. It translates over to scouting and reading hitters and all that kind of stuff. And it just helps me, makes me feel more prepared, it helps my mind. With other guys that’s not how they work necessarily and there’s nothing wrong with that, I mean, whatever works for you.”
While Hendricks hasn’t yet done much exploration into sabermetrics – he admitted he didn’t really know much about specific advanced statistics – he’s eager to explore the subject as more information becomes available to him. At the Cubs rookie camp in January, Hendricks sat through a meeting where the pitchers were given detailed statistics and advanced scouting on Jay Bruce. For Hendricks, the lesson was a treat that he quickly embraced.
“In the minors, we don’t have that advanced stuff on a sheet of paper,” Hendricks said. “We have to do it all on our own, kind of. We have to go into the video room, pull up the video of the hitters who I’ll see in my next start and figure out on my own how to pitch that guy. I think it helped a lot having to do it on my own going forward. And now they’re just giving us additional information to kind of verify what I would have been thinking.”
Hendricks said he and Northwestern grad Eric Jokisch were delirious with the amount of information provided, joking that they both knew what they could do once their baseball careers had ended.
Of course, Hendricks hopes it’s a long while before he has to decide what his post-baseball life looks like. With all the advanced scouting and information provided at the major league level, Hendricks feels his game will only improve when he takes the next step.
“I’m hoping I don’t survive, I’m hoping I thrive,” Hendricks said about someday reaching the majors. “With my stuff up there, it just comes down to pitching. It’s what I’ve had to do my entire career. Even going back to high school, I’ve never had overpowering stuff. That’s why I gotta know how to pitch and maybe that’s why I have to look into those stats and know hitters more in-depth. I don’t have the pure stuff to overpower guys in the majors. I have to mix pitchers, expand the strike zone, everything I’ve kind of been learning from all my coaches throughout my career.”
Hendricks joined the Cubs organization along with third base prospect Christian Villanueva in July of 2012 in a trade that sent Ryan Dempster to the Texas Rangers. Hendricks didn’t do much in his 17 innings with High-A Daytona the rest of that season, but he posted gaudy numbers at two levels (2.00 ERA, with 128 strikeouts and only 34 walks in 166 1/3 innings) in his breakout 2013 season.
While Hendricks’ fastball isn’t weak, it’s hardly overpowering, sitting in the low-90s. The recent development of a cutter, which he introduced to his arsenal while he was with the Rangers High-A Myrtle Beach affiliate, could be the difference for Hendricks as he searches for ways to ensure that major league hitters stay honest on his fastball.
“I think that’s what my change-up is for, primarily, at this point,” Hendricks said about keeping hitters off his fastball. “I can throw my two-seam, which I get good movement on and I can spot it. And then my change-up has been good enough. [But my cutter] is coming along great, I only learned it two years ago. It takes a while to master a pitch and I don’t know if you ever really master a pitch, to be honest. I’ve been working hard at it and throwing it every day. Hopefully it can be a third pitch that’s good enough to play at the major league level.”
Hendricks said the fact that his two primary pitches – the two-seamer and change-up – bear into right-handers, the ability to develop his cutter, which would break away from a righty, could be the difference maker for which he’s been searching.
Hendricks ability to locate his pitches, primarily his tendency to rarely miss with his fastball in the zone, has helped keep his home run numbers down during his time in the minors. However, major league hitters will prove to be more patient and Hendricks, even with his impressive command on the corners, may not get the same calls he has in the past. Meaning, if Hendricks can’t bring the cutter to an acceptable standard, he’ll either have to stay out of the zone or challenge hitters with his fastball. Neither is likely to result in success for Hendricks.
Regardless, it’s Hendricks’ dogged preparation for the game that has helped elevate him into a legitimate rotation candidate in the near future. Even if he develops a quality third pitch, it’s unlikely Hendricks will stand out from the crowd with his stuff. Both coaches and Hendricks attribute his success to his ability to pitch to a scouting report, exploiting the weakness of the opponent and his pinpoint command of the zone.
Hendricks’ ability to take in and properly comprehend so much advanced information about hitters is what sets him apart from most of his colleagues. It’s also what will help get him into the Cubs rotation when the time comes. With Jake Arrieta starting the spring with shoulder issues, the fifth spot in the rotation appears to be up for grabs. Chris Rusin, Carlos Villanueva and James McDonald all have a leg up on Hendricks heading into March, but that doesn’t mean he won’t see time in Wrigley at some point this summer.
“I hope so,” Hendricks said when asked if he expected to be a part of the Cubs rotation sometime this season. “I don’t fully determine that. All I can focus on is what I can control. You always hope it’s a realistic opportunity for you, but I know the opportunity will be there. I’m just trying to work hard in this offseason, get in shape, get my arm feeling good and be ready to go when I go into spring training so I can make the most of whatever opportunity I have.”