Kyle Hendricks and Cubs at Another Crossroads: ‘I’d Like to Take a Ride’
Kyle Hendrix couldn’t keep up with the pace and demands of the job, which is disorienting for a man with a Dartmouth degree and a World Series ring. As a pitcher working with an already slim margin for error, it became increasingly difficult to maintain his power, synchronize his mechanics, perfect his delivery and not be too predictable on the mound. That’s why beginners who can do it 30-plus times, year after year, make so much money.
If Chicago Cubs touting the relative success of their pitching infrastructure, they focus on concepts such as bullpen depth, coaching minor league prospects, identifying low buyouts in free agency and using technology to their advantage. However, this narrative of progress glosses over how one of the most significant pitchers in franchise history went from receiving Cy Young Award votes in 2020 to having the worst season of his career and forcing a reset last year. Don’t the Cubs have a “Pitch Lab” for that? Team officials and Hendricks’ camp eventually agreed to hold off after last year’s All-Star break, essentially giving him a partial offseason during the season to allow his right shoulder to heal somewhat and create enough runway for a comprehensive program that could solve these questions.
That plan is only in the preliminary stages at the team’s compound in Arizona. Hendricks, 33, is weeks away from throwing a mound, making it doubtful he’ll be ready for Opening Day. But the only active player left from the 2016 World Series team is taking a long view, trusting medical experts, believing the Cubs have enough talent to be early trade buyers this summer and seeing the next chapter of his career.
“Once these health issues started to emerge, the red flags were there,” Hendricks said. “It usually happens right after you hit 30 as a pitcher. You’ll probably have some popping up – if you haven’t already – so some of it is completely natural. But once something happened, we were able to go back and look and see, “Okay, (my path) did me a lot of good while I was doing it.” My command, the action of my pitches, it all feeds off the way my arm works and how my mechanics work. Much deception followed from this.
“But obviously if it’s not going to be sustainable — and it hasn’t been — then you kind of step back and see, ‘Okay, now let’s make some changes.'”
Full health had to be the No. 1 priority before the Cubs could implement those ideas. Without the ability to develop, Hendricks would never have been drafted in the eighth round Texas Rangers to a less-heralded prospect in the Ryan Dempster trade for the World Series starter in Game 7. Hendricks always tried to stay ahead of the game, practicing yoga, learning information from the Ivy team database and working with pitching coach Tommy Hottavy and the rest of the game-planning staff. For years, Hendricks has traveled to the Florida practice facility run by Eric Cressey, director of player health and performance at the New York Yankees.
The Cubs incorporated Cressey’s perspective into the offseason program, which was also shaped by Dr. Keith Meister, the Texas Rangers’ head team physician and renowned orthopedic surgeon, who examined Hendricks and outlined his options. Reading the MRI of a pitcher with more than 1,300 innings in the major leagues with a worn right arm is an art. The picture won’t look pristine, but Hendricks said he’s been told the vast majority — “80 to 85 percent” — of pitchers with a torn shoulder capsule do not require surgery. Such a risky procedure would also mean a long recovery period that would stretch into her mid-30s, a period that seemed never-ending.
Instead, Hendricks focused on strengthening his shoulder and his entire body, loading his training routine with additional warm-up and cool-down exercises and trying to adjust his work to increase efficiency and reduce stress. The shoulder problem won’t go away completely, but there’s hope that it can be managed and minimized through diligence, strategic planning and everything else that has kept Hendrix healthy for most of his career up until this point.
“You just have to constantly adapt,” Hendricks said. “We are on the right track.”
Hendrix was never going to be the guy who throws 100 MPH in a warehouse and then posts a video on social media. But even a small increase in velocity — with improved health, improved athleticism and more fluid mechanics — will create more separation between his sinker and his changeup to throw hitters off balance. It features a crisper pitch that involves keeping the hand in the glove a split second longer, shortening the arm path instead of reaching back behind the body, and finishing with quicker, more explosive movements. He needs to find ways to generate more swings and misses, more balls and weak contact. Since the start of the 2021 season, he has allowed 285 hits in 265 1/3 innings, giving up 46 home runs in 48 starts and posting a 4.78 ERA. He last appeared on the field on July 5.
The Cubs aren’t going to rush Hendricks, their Opening Day starter in each of the past three seasons. Jed Hoyer’s front office has assembled ample rotation depth in the backfield Marcus Stroman, Jameson Taillon, Justin Steele and Drew Smiley get through spring training and the start of the season. David Ross’ coaching staff is open to creative ways to structure the bullpen and use swingmen such as Keegan Thompson and Adbert Alzolai. Pitchers benefit from aligning with more Gold Glove-winning or Gold Glove-caliber defenders: Dansby Swanson, Niko Hoerner, Tucker Barnhart, Ian Gomez, Cody Bellinger, Jan Hap, Seiya Suzuki and Eric Hosmer. After spending more than $300 million on free agents this offseason, the Cubs expect to compete for the division title.
“Everything goes through a process, everything is cyclical,” Hendricks said. “I’m very excited to be in this part of this process, to be in this part of the cycle where you’ve seen our young guys that we’ve been able to develop within the organization. They took advantage of their opportunities. Some of them really jumped in and became pieces for us. Jed saw everything that happened. Now you’re bringing in these famous players who have been winning throughout their lives and winning at the highest level.
“It all started when I first got here. You just saw great people who really fought and loved the game. It’s really the vibe you get from each of these guys you meet. This makes me very excited. Everyone in the team feels it.”
Hendricks has already signed a long-term contract with the Cubs, so there won’t be any drama with extension talks or rethinking how things got to this point. The Cubs have invested too much into this season to be automatic sellers at the trade deadline, so there shouldn’t be the same level of distraction that bothered some of Hendricks’ former teammates.
Hendricks immediately clicked with Taillan, who has perspective as a cancer survivor who has undergone two Tommy John surgeries and overhauled his game to the point that the Cubs felt comfortable making a four-year, $68 million commitment. Hendrix knows the former Cub Rich hill — whose fastball averaged 88.3 mph last season — will be 43 this year and in the bigs. Once Hendricks rejoins the rotation and plays in meaningful games, he will have to force Hoyer to pick up his $16 million club option for the 2024 season.
“We had so many good discussions,” Hendricks said. “They’ve been so good to me and so cool with me throughout the years. We have such a good relationship. I appreciate everything they have done. It’s all there. We know what it is. The bottom line is that I just want to provide quality (pitch). I just want to be healthy and go and (contribute). It helps a lot when I focus on the guys we have, the new faces in the team. I just want to be around my guys and be consistent every fifth day. Doing that – if I can be who I am – then I think after the season things will take care of themselves.
“Obviously the goal would be to stay here. I loved everything about it. I would like to drive as long as I can.’
Hendricks has already exceeded expectations, winning more games and throwing more innings in a Cubs uniform than Rick Sutcliffe, Kerry Wood, Jon Lester and Jake Arrieta. Hendricks has already shown he can be a unicorn of sorts, using exceptional poise and command to outscore hitters and control some of the biggest games in franchise history. Hendricks will still have to reinvent himself, as is the case with any pitcher who wants to make a living at it.
“I can take a step back and see the bigger picture a little bit,” Hendricks said. “I can obviously see where I am in my career. Still, it’s very exciting. I see the opportunity in front of me, the opportunity to be who I am for this team and for all these guys that come here and work every day. But, yeah, individually it gives me a chance to prove myself again, in a way, and just see where it takes me.
“I love the game. I love pitching. I love everything about it. So I want to play as much as I can. It’s definitely helped me through this whole rehab process, not taking it too hard, just knowing that I love every part of it and it’s going to get me where I need to be eventually.”
(Top photo: Kamil Kszczynski/USA Today)
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