Jon Lester is gone. Yu Darvish is gone. Jake Arrieta is gone (well, the old Jake Arrieta is gone). But Kyle Hendricks remains, leading the Chicago Cubs rotation in a more obvious way than he ever has before. Having signed a four-year, $55.5 million extension with the Cubs ahead of the 2020 season, the closest thing the Cubs have to a legitimate and studly homegrown starter is now the clear ace of the staff. Of course, that’s hardly new to most of us.
With Hendricks, 31, we’re well past the point of waiting for the other shoe to drop. He’s seven years into his big league career (all with the Cubs) and has never once had an ERA above 4.00 let alone a FIP within shouting distance (and FIP has always underrated his particular skill set). He’s never been an All-Star, but he has led the league in ERA and has twice generated top-10 votes for the Cy Young.
And since breaking into the league in 2014, Hendricks ranks among the best in innings pitched (26th), HRs allowed per nine (25th), WAR (15th), ERA (10th), exit velocity (3rd), K/BB ratio (25th), and walk rate (18th). Early concerns about his velocity or stuff are well in the past. And the only people who DON’T realize he’s an ace live outside of Chicago (or were blinded by the trio of Cy Young candidates/winners who’ve sat ahead of him in Chicago’s rotation until now).
But there are no more shadows to hide behind.
For at least the next season, the Cubs’ rotation will be Hendricks‘ rotation and he is very much up to the task, having learned from the best (per David Ross at the Chicago Sun Times):
“I think the great thing about Kyle is he was around Jake [Arrieta] in his prime and around Jon Lester [during] the championship run and I [witnessed his growth] from being around those guys,” Ross said. “So a lot of the qualities that will be missing in Jon, and we were missing from Jake that we get back, Kyle has taken on a lot of that.”
Of course high-level performance isn’t the only hallmark of an ace. One must also be durable. A workhorse, if you may. And historically, that’s been fine for Hendricks, who ranks 9th(!) in innings pitched since his first full season in 2015. But this year will be different. Pitchers had an unusual spring training in 2020, to say nothing of the shortened season. You might be inclined to point to the saved bullets as a good thing, but pitchers (and bodies) are creatures of habit and most anticipate longevity issues in 2021.
Not that Hendricks is willing to admit it (via Jordan Bastian at Cubs.com): “I think I’m ready to take on a full load again,” Hendricks said via Zoom on Wednesday. “I know what it’s like to go through a full season, so I can lean on that experience.”
His manager, David Ross, wants to be “smart” and “careful” with everyone’s innings this year, listening to the pitchers, themselves, but also the data that might be able to tell them a little more. Either way, Hendricks wants to be this team’s ace in terms of performance and innings: “I just want to be there,” Hendricks said, “be that consistent force for these guys, take the ball every fifth day and they know what they can get out of me.”
And, hey, my friends, if all the history, data, stats, quotes, and confidence don’t make his odds to win the Cy Young look absolutely HILARIOUS to you, I don’t know what will:
Most underrated player in baseball pic.twitter.com/yQeqYMqTi4
— FullCountTommy (@FullCountTommy) February 16, 2021
Listen, I’m not saying he’s a shoe-in for the honor (Jacob deGrom, Yu Darvish, Luis Castillo, Walker Buehler, etc. are all great bets with appropriately lower odds), but if you’re telling me you believe NOAH SYNDERGAARD, who won’t even be back until partway into the season, JAKE ARRIETA, who has been rough of late, and JOSH HADER, a great reliever who might not even be the best reliever in his bullpen, nonetheless, are better bets to win the 2021 NL Cy Young award, you are absolutely out of your mind. (Brett: also, a 35-year-old who didn’t pitch last year (David Price) and a ROCKIES starting pitcher who has really struggled (Jon Gray). What the hell?)
I have already made my way to the DraftKings Illinois Sportsbook, because that really is absurd value – perhaps especially in a year where preparation, intelligence, and mindfulness will mean way more than physical capabilities and a 96 MPH fastball. You can sign up for DraftKings here if you agree. And I am modestly sorry for dropping in an affiliate link in the middle of a pure Hendricks-love post, but I’m just so seriously taken aback.
Okay, taking a deep breath and moving on … let’s close with a little bit of Kyle Hendricks love from throughout the web, if you want more, need more, gotta have more Hendo:
— Dartmouth Baseball (@BigGreenBasebal) February 4, 2021
and @DolphHauldhagen helpfully also wrote today about *how* Hendricks is so good at beating his FIP, which is by suppressing hard contact, which he does in a host of ways but most obviously with superb location. https://t.co/f1ODN7IZe3
— Rob Arthur (@No_Little_Plans) February 4, 2021
it's going to be amazing and hilarious if, after two+ decades of baseball pursuing harder and harder stuff-throwers, it turns out there's a completely different repeatable strategy to good pitching that can be taught/trained/developed
— Rob Arthur (@No_Little_Plans) February 4, 2021