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No sweeping conclusions can be drawn from an Opening Day performance, but a team and individual players can definitely set a tone.
That was Kyle Hendricks’ aim as he opened the 2022 season against the Brewers on Thursday. Hendricks had the worst season of his career last year, and one start does not erase all of the question marks created by a bad campaign, but it helps to start things off on the right foot.
“Vintage Kyle, to me,” manager David Ross said, summing up Hendricks’ 5 ⅓ inning, seven-strikeout performance in a 5-4 win against Milwaukee.
Hendricks struggled in 2021 in large part because he could not establish his fastball down and away and use it to set up his changeup and curveball.
“I just didn’t have it last year,” Hendricks said. “My changeup was similar, but I wasn’t establishing my fastball down in the zone.”
Judging by his first start of the 2022 season, he has course-corrected nicely. Hendricks had the highest number of swings and misses (13) than he has since getting 13 in a July 9, 2018, start against the Giants.
That was because he got his fastball where he wanted it in the zone and could then use his off-speed and breaking pitches to keep the Brewers lineup off balance.
“You saw the swings on the changeup,” Hendricks said. “That’s how it’s going to work. If I can’t establish the fastball, the changeup won’t playoff off of it.”
Hendricks had four strikeouts through the first two innings, three of which came in the second inning alone. That was the first time since Aug. 28, 2020, that he earned all three outs in a frame via strikeout. Some of what helped create those awkward swings was added movement on his offspeed and breaking pitches.
“His stuff has upticked as far as the numbers go and the data goes,” Ross said. “His stuff is better than it’s ever been. His curveball is spinning as good as it spun, the same with the changeup and movement, the way he’s locating the fastball.”
Hendricks said he started experimenting with a knuckle grip during the offseason, which has contributed to the increased spin rate seen during spring training and on Opening Day.
“It’s going to be big for me going forward,” Hendricks said of his new grip. “It’s definitely coming in with more spin off the numbers, it has a little more bite. It feels really good coming out of my hand, so I think I’m just trying to throw it more, throw it in more situations […] just trying to be unpredictable with it.”
This should put Cubs fans’ minds at ease a bit. Hendricks was uncharacteristically bad last season, and he has previously struggled to get things going in April. Thursday’s start, then, was a tone-setter.
Not all was perfect; Hendricks issued a leadoff walk in the third inning and hit Omar Narváez with a pitch in the fourth. He said he felt his fastball creeping up in the zone at times, but he was able to adjust.
“I set a good tone from the first inning, I thought, establishing my fastball,” Hendricks said. “I was able to get my fastball down, down and away, in those first couple innings. And off of that, my changeup played off of it. Threw a lot of good curveballs at the right times. So overall pretty good at being aggressive [and] setting the tone.”
For the pitching scheme as a whole, the Opening Day game also showed what will be an awkward balance for Ross as he navigates trying to win ballgames and give his pitchers the work they need coming off of a shortened spring training.
Hendricks was able to get into the sixth inning and throw 83 pitches, and from there, Ross used five different relievers.
“He just went out and did his thing,” Ross said of Hendricks, “and let him go back out for that 6th inning and try and get his pitch count up. Trying to balance — it’s so weird — winning the ballgame and still let guys get stretched out each time and get to a number that you feel comfortable with and not shortening them up.”
Ross went to Daniel Norris in the sixth and then followed with Chris Martin, Rowan Wick and Mychal Givens before handing the ball to David Robertson for the save in the ninth inning.
Last season, Hendricks threw 181 innings, something he said in September was a point of pride despite his struggles in 2021. If he is able to continue pitching like he did Thursday, Hendricks could get to 200 innings for the first time in his career. He came an inning short of that mark in 2018.
In a Cubs season that will be a lot about seeing what they have and gauging some of the new faces, Hendricks will need to pitch like his old self. A lot is different about the Cubs in 2022, but Hendricks is still “The Professor.”
At least, he looked like it again on Opening Day.