‘Consistent force’: Kyle Hendricks is the ace the Cubs need in 2021
MESA, Ariz. — If there is one pitcher able to bypass the expected innings restrictions in 2021, it’s Kyle Hendricks.
Teams are cautious about unleashing their top arms after a shortened season that saw nearly every pitcher throw fewer innings than any other year in their career.
But Hendricks might be the perfect guy to run counter to that. After all, this is the same pitcher who threw a complete game shutout on Opening Day last summer when he was projected for about 75-85 pitches coming off the lockdown.
Hendricks is a team guy and he’s never one to make waves, so if Cubs manager David Ross and pitching coach Tommy Hottovy want to back off his workload, he won’t put up a big fight. But it’s worth noting that he felt so fresh after last season, he wanted to keep throwing and only took a couple weeks off before picking up a baseball. His customary offseason consists of a couple months away from throwing.
“I feel pretty normal, maybe a little fresher just ’cause the innings total in general was down,” Hendricks said. “I think it’s going to be a fluid process through the whole year. No one’s been through a season like that that we just went through. How we bounce back, guys are just going to have to see how their bodies respond.
“I put in a ton of work this offseason; I want to be ready and make my start every fifth day. That’s who I’ve always been. I put in the work last year as well during quarantine — I was coming out and throwing innings to our own guys and stuff. My innings load was actually a little higher than the numbers would say, but I’ve positioned myself well.
“I think I’m ready to take on a full load again. I know what it’s like to go through a full season, so I can lean on that experience. I just want to be there, be that consistent force for these guys, take the ball every fifth day and they know what they can get out of me.”
With Yu Darvish now in San Diego, Hendricks is the unquestioned ace of this Cubs staff and it bodes well for the team that his main goals this year are trying to be a “consistent force” and to handle a full workload.
He wound up leading the Cubs in innings pitched (81.1) last season and that total was just 1 out shy of the National League lead.
Hendricks has never topped 200 innings in a season, but he has pitched 180 or higher three times in his career, including 199 in 2018. His delivery and arsenal doesn’t put as much strain on his arm as some other pitchers and he has always been a big proponent of yoga to keep his flexibility where it needs to be.
And at 31, Hendricks is still firmly in the midst of his prime, so it wouldn’t be a shock to see him once again be among the league leaders in innings pitched.
But right now, the Cubs are prioritizing health and the big picture over all else.
“Kyle is a guy who stays in great shape, he is very durable and we trust in the innings that he can give us, but we’re gonna be smart,” Ross said. “I’ve got a lot of confidence in Kyle, but I don’t wanna put any numbers on innings.”
Hendricks is also coming off one of his best years yet in terms of on-field production. Beyond the innings pitched, he also posted the second-lowest ERA (2.88) and WHIP (0.99) of his career and walked fewer batters (0.9 per 9 innings) than ever before.
He was so happy with where his mechanics were at the end of 2020 that it was also part of the reason why he resumed throwing so soon after the Cubs were knocked out of the playoffs.
“Every year, you’re changing something or tweaking something to try to get better,” he said. “I didn’t feel like I really needed all those months off of not touching a baseball like you normally might. I feel really good mechanically and where I was at the end of last year, I was able to carry some of those things over.
“So other than that, the stuff in the weight room and the running — all that was just a continuation of what I’ve been doing the offseason before, so I just feel even better with where I’m at with that. But tweaking some things with my throwing program feels great. Feels like I’m able to carry over some of my mechanics and hopefully I can get started earlier here in spring.”
With Jon Lester gone and so many new and younger pitchers in the mix, Hendricks will take the natural evolution to become more of a leader on this staff.
But between that and the clear ace status, the Cubs know he won’t put too much pressure on himself or get in his own way.
“In the managerial seat,” Ross said, “the guy that I worry about the least is Kyle Hendricks.”