The Cubs are best known for their king’s ransom of position-player prospects, but pitcher Kyle Hendricks is proving they have quality young arms, too.
After the Cubs traded Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel to the Oakland A’s last year on the fourth of July, they called up a pitcher from Triple-A that few people truly believed could make it as a Major League starting pitcher. He didn’t throw hard, the stuff wasn’t great, and it was believed that he wouldn’t generate enough strikeouts to consistently keep teams from scoring runs.
That pitcher was Kyle Hendricks, and he ended up with 13 starts in a Cubs uniform in 2014, going 7-2 with a 2.46 ERA and 3.32 FIP, allowing just four home runs in 80 1/3 innings pitched while striking out a paltry 5.3 hitters per nine innings. It was a great showing, but he still had his doubters. There’s no way he could sustain that kind of success keeping the ball in the ballpark while allowing so much contact.
But here he is, 12 starts into the 2015 season, and he’s still having success. He’s actually striking out batters at a decent rate now, which is something that few expected. His K/9 rate is up to 7.7, which ranks him 45th for all qualified starters in baseball. For the record, that’s just behind Sonny Gray and David Price, while squeaking past Zack Greinke.
He’s allowed more home runs, as was predicted. He has allowed seven homers in his 68 2/3 innings, which is still pretty good. His hits and walks per nine innings are very close to what he allowed in 2014, and he’s put up a 3.80 ERA and 3.45 FIP. It’s too early to draw any conclusions on Hendricks, but so far it looks like he’s the real deal.
The big knock on the Cubs is that while they’ve developed a farm system known for hoarding hitting prospects, they haven’t really developed any pitching prospects. And while it’s true that they don’t have many pitchers they’ve drafted and developed over the last few years, they do have pitching coach Chris Bosio, who has worked wonders with developing pitchers at the Major League level.
They acquired Jake Arrieta, whom Bosio worked with on his slider/cutter (often referred to as his “slutter”) when he arrived in the middle of 2013. Arrieta had been a top prospect in the Orioles organization, but he hadn’t ever been able to put it together on a consistent basis. In 358 career innings with the Orioles, Arrieta posted a 5.46 ERA and 4.72 FIP with only 7.0 K/9. Since coming over to the Cubs, he’s thrown 285 1/3 innings with a 2.90 ERA, 2.89 FIP, and 9.1 K/9.
Hendricks is another import from another team. While he came up with the Cubs, the 25-year-old was actually drafted by the Texas Rangers in the eighth round of the 2011 draft. When the Cubs traded Ryan Dempster to the Rangers in 2012, Hendricks was a 22-year-old at Single-A with a 2.82 ERA in 20 starts. He wasn’t striking out a ton of guys, given his age while factoring in his dominance, and at the time the bigger piece in the deal was expected to be third base prospect Christian Villanueva.
But Hendricks rose quickly in the Cubs organization, posting a 2.00 ERA in 27 starts between Double-A and Triple-A in 2013. He wasn’t quite as dominant in the early going in 2014, putting up a 3.59 ERA in 17 starts at Triple-A. But his strikeouts were on the rise even then, going up to 8.6 per nine innings and giving some hope to the few that thought he might be able to have success at the Major League level.
For a little bit of fun, watch the movement and deception on some strikeout pitches from a game against the Padres last season. Here he is striking out two in the first inning.
Another one in the seventh inning.
And so here he is, having consistent success. He doesn’t overpower guys, but he does fool them from time to time. After a bit of a rough start to the season, Hendricks has a 2.25 ERA over his last five starts, with 29 strikeouts and just four walks in 32 innings pitched. In last night’s game against the Cincinnati Reds, he was only able to go five innings because of a massive rain delay that knocked him out of the game.
But had mother-nature cooperated, Hendricks might have made it to the eighth or ninth inning. He had only thrown 57 pitches through five, allowing just one run and striking out seven batters. The bullpen immediately gave up the lead once play resumed nearly three hours after they rolled the tarp out, knocking Hendricks out of the win column and giving him his tenth no-decision this season.
To illustrate how Hendricks operates when he’s on his game, check out the strikezone plot of the final pitches in each at bat from last night.
You’ll notice that, while other pitchers get a ton of strikeouts by getting guys to chase outside the zone, Hendricks’ outs nearly all came from pitches inside the strike zone. He had one changeup in the dirt and one that was just slightly inside that resulted in strikeouts. But he had five strikeouts on pitches inside the zone, and 13 of his 18 outs came from pitches that a batter should’ve been able to hit, in theory.
Kyle Hendricks is never going to be the ace of the staff, for all the reasons I’ve touched on. His fastball tops out at around 90-91 mph and he has a very fine line that he needs to walk every single time he pitches. What makes him so good is the pinpoint accuracy with which he pitches and the amount of study that he puts into each start. He goes into the game knowing each batter’s strengths and weaknesses and uses it to his advantage.
Hendricks is the kind of pitcher that good teams need. He’s young, comes at a low cost, and didn’t require the use of a high draft pick or great assets to acquire. The Cubs farm system may not be loaded with electric pitching prospects, but I’d be perfectly fine if they churned out a few more guys like Hendricks.