I saw a tweet yesterday from the Chicago Tribune’s Meghan Montemurro, who caught a glimpse of a certain Cubs pitcher getting in some offseason work:
Except, rather than getting that work done over at Sloan Park in Mesa, Ariz., the spring training home of the Chicago Cubs, Kyle Hendricks was throwing that bullpen at Bell Bank Park. That’s on top of his previous bullpen session from Friday, when he pitched while a couple of youth games were happening on either side of him.
Those tweets got me thinking about Hendricks, because sure, it’s great to see that he’s one of the many players who’ve moved to the MLBPA’s fully functioning spring training facility down in Arizona to continue their preseason ramp-up with some semblance of normalcy. And in a time when Major League Baseball has locked out its players and none of those who are on the 40-man roster can go to the Cubs’ complex, Hendricks finding a place down in Mesa to get some spring work is a positive step toward preparing for his age-32 season.
In a perfect world, though, Hendricks would be ramping up at the Cubs’ own spring training complex. He’d be working with the Chicago’s own pitching coach, Tommy Hottovy, to determine exactly what caused his issues during the 2021 season (in which he put up some of his worst seasonal numbers as a big leaguer), and what exactly he can do to turn back into the Cubs’ ace.
I could go ahead and list out some of his career-worst numbers, but it might just be easier to take a gander at Hendricks’ FanGraphs page to check out his year by year statistics. Nearly across the board, from standard stats to advanced stats to Statcast, Hendricks appeared to spend 2021 pitching as bad or nearly as bad as any season in his eight-year career.
He had those typical early season struggles that have haunted him his entire career. Over five starts in March/April, Hendricks was 1-3, posted a 7.54 ERA, and opponents hit .333 with a 1.080 OPS. Tough numbers to look at, yes, but also not far out of line with his March/April numbers, which are historically the worst of his career. August and September/October saw numbers just as rough as his first month of the season, though those were outside of his career norms in those months.
But even after what was arguably his worst season in the majors, it seems to be forgotten that there was a point in the season where he still looked like “The Professor.”
There was that 16-game stretch (from May 16 to Aug. 6) where Hendricks looked like one of the bigger All-Star snubs in baseball. During that stretch, Hendricks went 11-0, had a 2.79 ERA and struck out 71 batters compared to walking just 19. He failed to make it through six innings in just one of those starts, and he failed to produce a quality start in just two. Hits were still a concern as he gave up 97 in 100 innings of work, and some of the advanced stats weren’t particularly in his favor, but in typical “Professor” fashion, Hendricks figured out a way to be the ace the Cubs needed him to be during that run.
“This guy’s been holding it down for us,” manager David Ross said after Hendricks earned win No. 11 against the Cardinals on July 9. “I think when you talk about All-Stars, sometimes guys that have the big numbers or the velocities or the names get a little bit more of the nod there. But he’s definitely, for me, deserving of that. This guy has done nothing but go out there, take the bump and win baseball games for us, give us a chance to win every time he’s on the mound.”
Which made it all the more frustrating that he struggled so much in those other three-plus months (and especially those last two).
There was that theory that his April struggles came as a result of him tipping his pitches. That could help explain why he had his worst first month of the season since he arrived on the North Side, but it isn’t like he’s ever had tons of success in that month in the first place.
Maybe, as Brendan pointed out in his article from Sunday, those elevated sinkers and the adjustment to that approach caused those issues that saw him lead the league in home runs allowed by the time May rolled around. Maybe it’s as simple as the Chicago cold just leads to his slow starts. Nobody has really pinpointed the reason.
As for Hendricks’ struggles from his second August start and on, I’d like to believe Hottovy’s explanation back in September is really what ailed him:
“Every year he’s been here, minus the end of 2014, we’ve been pitching for something late in the season, whether it’s postseason, before he signed his contract,” Hottovy said. “It was a lot of proving that he can do this at this level for a long time, so I think it’s just different motivation right now.”
Hopefully that’s it. Remember, before the trade deadline, Hendricks was still teammates with players like Javier Báez, Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo and Craig Kimbrel. But those guys were all shipped out at the end of July, and two weeks later, his season started to sink. So maybe Hottovy is on to something.
It’s a shame that the two can’t work together right now due to the lockout, because if there were other factors affecting Hendricks’ performance, Hottovy can’t be the one implementing a plan to address them at the moment.
Regardless, Hendricks needs to figure out how to get back to looking like a true leader for this Chicago pitching staff. He doesn’t have to be the Hendricks who won the ERA title and finished third in National League Cy Young voting in 2016, but he does need to look like the guy who’s been a steady presence atop the rotation for the last six seasons to help lead the North Siders through the struggles they’ll face as they move further into this new era.
Luckily, Hendricks has a place in Mesa where he can get top-notch preseason training, even if it isn’t the typical spring training he’d like to have with the Cubs’ staff. Hopefully, the lockout ends sometime in the near future, Hendricks can get back to working with Hottovy and the rest of the staff, and “The Professor” can finally start preparing his “lesson plans” for 2022.