Once again last night, I thought Kyle Hendricks looked like the guy we hope he could be: a quality 4/5 starter for a Chicago Cubs team with a good rotation. That’s pretty high praise when you think about what you hope the Cubs’ front three or four could look like next year, and I’d think the Cubs have to be pleased with what they’ve seen from Hendricks thus far through two starts.
To be sure, the results last night were excellent. Seven innings with no earned runs is just about as good as it gets these days. That it came against the worst offense in baseball is not necessarily, alone, a reason to discount the start – even bad big league lineups are full of very good hitters, and they’re a heck of a lot better than a good AAA lineup.
But, as we’ve learned, results, especially in a single start, can only tell you so much about what’s to come for a pitcher. So, let’s dig a little deeper on Hendricks’ outing, in terms of his performance. Hendricks struck out just five in his seven innings, which is not great on its face – especially when paired with three walks – but it’s also not too shabby. Usually, when you allow that many balls in play, you’re going to give up some runs. But something Hendricks did very well, and something that is a repeatable part of his skill set: he got lots of groundballs.
Yes, grounders are likelier than a fly ball to go for a hit, but they are enormously less likely to do a lot of damage (and, as we saw last night, they can generate double plays). On a night like last night, with the wind howling out, getting ground balls is even more important. For Hendricks, he got 10(!) groundouts, three of which were double plays.
To the eye, the stuff looked as good as it the first time out – which is to say, Hendricks commanded all of his pitches, and his changeup looked as close to a wipeout pitch as he’s got. He doesn’t have overwhelming velocity, so he’s got to hit his spots. I’m not sure he was doing that perfectly all night, but he was mostly down in the zone, where it’s a little easier to miss and not be punished. Hendricks nibbled, as you might expect, which worked last night (it was a wide-ish zone), but could cause him problems in the future. That’s probably always going to have to be his game, though, because coming in and challenging hitters would probably not work out too well.
To that point, Hendricks generated seven swings and misses last night, which is OK. All but one came outside the zone, however, which is not a bad thing – it just suggests he’s not going to be able to overpower guys with his stuff or velocity in the zone. Hendricks’ game will probably always be pitching at the margins, making guys miss by expanding the zone, and then making guys get themselves out on the ground.
Hendricks was extremely economical last night, needing just 83 pitches to get through his seven innings. He let the Padres put the ball in play, and let the defense make plays behind him.
All in all, it was an impressive performance, even if you ignore the flawless results. You can envision games where Hendricks gets slapped around, and where the nibbling costs him a few too many walks and hitters’ counts. But you can also envision, in the aggregate, Hendricks being an effective, efficient starter who regularly gives the Cubs a chance to win.
Before we go too far, of course, you’ve got to do the obligatory check: it’s just two starts. As teams see more and more film, they’ll adjust to Hendricks’ approach, and he’ll have to continue his process of adjusting. But we’ve only got what we’ve got, and, through two starts, things look good so far.
And a fun fact: in his final inning of work, Hendricks struck out the side, all swinging. Know what he did in his first outing against the Reds? In his final inning, he struck out the side, all swinging.