Later today, Kyle Hendricks will become the third member of the Chicago Cubs starting rotation to make his Spring Training debut – following Tyler Chatwood (Monday) and Jon Lester (Tuesday) – leaving Yu Darvish (Thursday) and Jose Quintana (Friday) for later in the week. And that’s how they’ll line up when the regular season opens, too, from Lester to Chatwood.
After an up-and-down 2017 season – which, itself, followed a Cy Young-caliber, ERA-leading 2016 season – that saw him lose velocity, take an extended trip on the disabled list, and turn things around enough to be the Cubs’ Game 1 starter for the NLDS, Hendricks is ready for a full, productive year on the mound.
“He looks like a different cat this year,” Maddon said via articles at The Daily Herald, Cubs.com, and ESPN. “He’s had two really good years in a row. He’s overcome some difficult moments during the season. The adjustments, he knows he can do that. He knows what it’s like to just nail it down and just run with it. He’s become a really solid major-league starting pitcher, a really high-end guy with less than the velocity that everybody’s looking for.”
Maddon went onto explain that the growing familiarity with Hendricks – this is their fourth year together – has really started to show up in Hendricks’ own confidence, and that’s something that’ll translate to the mound. For what it’s worth, Hendricks seems to feel the same way.
“I think I’m finally just comfortable in being myself, doing my routine, knowing that what I do has the ability to work,” Hendricks said. “So, yeah, when you put the work in and see the results, it just makes you more confident to be yourself.”
This image was the closet thing I could find to Kyle Hendricks smiling.
On top of just being plain old successful, Hendricks’ goal for this season is reaching that 200 inning mark. He came closest to the threshold in 2016 (190.0 IP), and seemed destined to reach it last year, but injuries got in the way, and he ultimately tossed only 139.2 innings. This year, however, Hendricks is dead-set on being a workhorse, and he’s got the support of his fellow pitchers.
“The big thing is him staying healthy,” Lester said to ESPN about Hendricks. “The training wheels are off, per se, as far as an organizational aspect. They limited him in ’15 and ’16. Last year he had stuff going on. Now it’s just pitching.”
Lester went on to compliment Hendricks’ pitching intelligence, suggesting that he (Lester) can sit in the dugout with the scouting report, watching Hendricks on the mound, and call out every pitch Hendricks will make, because it follows the plan precisely. Combine that with his impressive command and productive arsenal, and there’s really no limit to how good he can be – heck, he was one of the best pitchers in baseball in 2016 and in the second half of 2017 already.
Hendricks’ ZiPS projections have him slated for just 155.0 innings in 2018, but unless he suffers another injury, that won’t happen. We know, for example, that Hendricks is completely healthy right now, that he was building up his inning totals before last season, and that this year, the “training wheels are off.” That means, physically, he should be able to exceed 155 IP and logistically, the manager won’t have a super fast hook.
Regardless of how many innings he throws, though, Hendricks’ performance projects to be very good (but short of elite). His ZiPS-projected 3.48 ERA (80 ERA-) and 3.74 FIP (85 FIP-) would’ve ranked 17th and 18th last season, incidentally one spot better than Jake Arrieta and Yu Darvish, respectively, and are clearly scheduled to be well-above average again this season.
Interestingly, Hendricks’ walk rate is projected to return to the 2015-2016 levels (a very good 6.0%), but his strikeout rate is expected to drop down to 20.9%, the lowest mark he’s posted since his half-season debut in 2014. Given where his strikeout rate was in the second half of last season (22.7%), which is basically identical to his mark in both 2015 and 2016, I think I’ll take the over on that particular projections.
But, of course, Hendricks’ real claim to fame is his ability to control contact, and while those rates were not projected by ZiPS, I think it’s safe to say that Hendricks appears ready to keep up his excellent production. Why am I so confident? Well, despite the velocity and health issues last season, Hendricks ground ball rate and infield fly ball rate climbed, while his fly ball rate fell.
And while he was better than average in both hard and soft contact for the entirety of the 2017 season, his second half numbers (when he was more himself after recovering from the finger injury) were downright deadly: 22.6% soft-hit rate, 25.7% hard-hit rate.
So, if Hendricks is comfortable and healthy, like he, his manager, and the staff ace say he is, then he should be in store for a big season in 2018.