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The Kyle Hendricks Conundrum: How Cubs are viewing the awkward situation

1 month agoTony Andracki

Kyle Hendricks has struggled through multi-start stretches before in his career, but this has been a particularly tough go of it for the veteran.

Any bout of struggles that comes at the beginning of a season is always more pronounced and the stat line is concerning for Hendricks: 12.71 ERA, 2.24 WHIP, 31 hits, 24 runs, 7 homers, 7 walks allowed in 17 innings.

Plus the Cubs have some options for their rotation now that Jameson Taillon is back from the IL and young arms like Ben Brown and Javier Assad are pitching well.

It all makes for an awkward situation surrounding one of the most notable figures in recent Cubs lore. This is a player who started Game 7 of the World Series and Game 1 of the 2017 playoffs, won the ERA title in 2016 and earned NL Cy Young votes in 2016 and 2020. 

As he navigates his 11th big-league season at age 34, the Cubs certainly need better results out of Hendricks.

“His place in Cubs history is secure,” Jed Hoyer said Friday. “I don’t think anything is going to change that. He’s struggling. The velocity is actually the same — if not a tick up — from last year. His location and execution have been poor.

“Obviously he’s paid for it; he’s faced good lineups. I’m not saying anything out of school — I think he has to pitch better.”

Hendricks and the Cubs are working to try to identify what might be off with his mechanics that are leading to some of the command and execution of his pitches.

During his last start in Arizona, Hendricks changed up his routine on the mound, deferring to catcher Miguel Amaya to call the pitches in an effort to become less predictable. (Hendricks previously had been calling his own pitches using the PitchCom device on his belt.)

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Given Hendricks’ age and struggles, it’s an understandable — albeit awkward — question to ponder his future. He is a free agent after the 2024 season.

He endured some struggles in 2021-22 (4.78 ERA, 1.33 WHIP) but there is also some important context within those performances. During 2021, he actually had a stretch from mid-May through early-August where he went 11-0 and notched 14 quality starts in 16 outings. But sandwiched around that run was a rough start and end to the season.

In 2022, his year was cut short due to a capsular tear in his pitching shoulder. That carried over into spring of last year, forcing Hendricks to begin the season on the IL and first join the Cubs rotation in late-May.

When he did return last year, Hendricks turned in a strong performance — 3.74 ERA, 1.20 WHIP and averaged nearly 6 innings per start.

Thus it seems hard to believe that he would just fall off the table as a viable starter, especially when his stuff is grading out on par with the rest of his career.

That said, the early performance is undeniable.

In 24 starts last year, he allowed 5 earned runs or more only 2 times. He’s done it all 4 times out so far this season.

Last year, he allowed 7 earned runs in an outing twice. He is coming off back-to-back starts with 7 earned runs allowed.

“It’s not 1 or 2 starts, it’s been 4 so obviously I think there is a level of concern,” Hoyer said. “But also I would say given his track record and given the fact that he’s gotten through struggles in the past — this isn’t the first time he has struggled.

“No one pitches for 10 years in the big leagues and doesn’t have those kinds of struggles at some point. So I think there’s a level of concern but I’m also very confident he’ll figure it out.”

There is an element of bad luck associated with Hendricks’ tough start. The opposition is hitting .387 off him on balls in play, which is way above the MLB average (.297) and his career mark (.286).

He is also giving up homers at an astronomical clip (3.7 HR/9) when he has typically been very solid at limiting the longball (1.0 career HR/9 rate). That very well could normalize at some point, but what these numbers also tell us is simply that he is not fooling hitters and his lack of execution on some pitches has left him open to allowing hard contact.

“Look, Kyle’s performance needs to improve,” manager Craig Counsell said. “I think we all agree on that. I think Kyle agrees on that.”

These struggles have been worse than normal but for whatever reason, Hendricks has always gotten off to slow starts throughout his decade-plus in the big leagues.

His career line in March and April outings is a 5.58 ERA and 1.46 WHIP. Yet from May 1 on, he boasts a career 3.29 ERA and 1.12 WHIP.

If the Cubs and Hendricks knew exactly how to solve those early-season issues, they would have but they do have some level of understanding behind it.

“If anything, I think it’s just more reps,” Counsell said. “It’s just reps with the delivery and kind of finding the sweet spot of your delivery or your swing and for some guys, you just got to stack up the reps.

“Essentially what Kyle’s numbers have said is that as he gets into the season, he gets better. It’s just stacking up reps with the delivery.”

While the Cubs do have other options in the rotation — including the return of Taillon Friday — they also understand how key Hendricks is to the team’s success this season.

Justin Steele is trending toward a return but he won’t throw a pitch in a big-league game in April. Assad and Shota Imanaga have pitched well in the rotation so far but neither player has ever gone through a full MLB season as a starter and Imanaga is used to working in a 6- or 7-day rotation in Japan.

Brown has also turned in a strong performance but this is his first stretch in the big leagues ever and the Cubs are cognizant of the fact that he and Jordan Wicks and some other young pitchers have never played a full 162-game season.

Still, the Cubs are 12-7 and sport one of the best records in baseball despite Hendricks’ early-season struggles.

“It’s really important for us to have [Hendricks] be a big part of the rotation,” Hoyer said. “I don’t think there’s any question. Steele’s injury Game 1 tested us with Taillon already out. The young guys have come up and they’ve done a really good job but we’re gonna have more injuries.

“We’re gonna have more things happen during the course of a season and more doubleheaders and we’re gonna need everyone to be able to pitch in. It is important to get Kyle right.

“Not to this level, but he’s had struggles in the past and gotten through them. To me, the most important thing is the velocity’s there and that gives you some hope that once he gets the execution right, then he’ll be back.”

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