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Back when Jameson Taillon was an opponent of Kyle Hendricks’, he didn’t really know what to think of him. From what Taillon could tell, Hendricks was a “mute,” a “robot,” someone who gives off a “super quiet, smart guy vibe” (and to be fair, many who don’t know Hendricks may believe something similar).
Taillon’s perception changed pretty quickly when he signed with the Cubs and got to be around his new teammate.
“Coming in the building, he’s pretty funny,” Taillon told CHGO about Hendricks during spring training. “He’s talkative. I’ve loved getting to know him. Super interesting guy, works extremely hard, but he’s way more outgoing than I thought he would be. I’ve really enjoyed being around them.”
That vibe from “The Professor” has been missing in the Cubs’ clubhouse for a very long time. The now 33-year-old is the sole 2016 World Series champion still playing for the Cubs, but he’d been on the shelf since July 5 after it was discovered he’d suffered a capsular tear in his right shoulder that ultimately ended his 2022 season.
A nearly 11-month recovery process featured programs to alter his arm path and increase his velocity. Both Cubs manager David Ross and pitching coach Tommy Hottovy noted that Hendricks is feeling strong and about as healthy as he felt prior to the injury. But to get this point, when he finally returned to start what ultimately became a 10-1 Cubs’ loss to the Mets on Thursday, it meant a lot of time away from the team.
Whether it was spending time at the Cubs’ complex in Arizona or on a rehab assignment with Triple-A Iowa, Hendricks hasn’t been around much over the last few months (outside of spring training and a couple of quick trips to throw bullpens in front of the coaching staff).
So, if nothing else, the Cubs see his reintroduction as helping to make the unit feel whole with his veteran presence back in the fold.
“You feel like you have a piece of your puzzle back together,” Hottovy said. “Regardless of the results, regardless of what he does, having him back around, having him around the team, having him around players to talk about pitching and talk about the game, it’s just valuable to have as an organization.”
“I know it’s been a long road back for him,” Ross said. “It’s nice to see his face around. Just feels like things are back to normal.”
Hendricks’ lack of emotion when he’s on the mound — whether things are going good or not — has become a meme of sorts. Ross himself joked that Hendricks’ most frustrated moments are when he lets out “a sigh of air,” and he couldn’t even think of what Hendricks’ happiest moment looks like off the top of his head.
Part of what makes Hendricks stand out is his even-keeled demeanor. He doesn’t get too high or low, and he doesn’t let his emotions take over. But for at least a little Thursday night, he let the emotions sink in. He even let a smile cross his face for the occasion.
“It was just so fulfilling to finally get back out there on that field, see the fans, run out on the field with my teammates,” Hendricks said. “Just the little things. I took it all in, really. You don’t take that for granted.”
The results weren’t exactly what Hendricks wanted them to be. He lasted just 4 1/3 innings, allowing five runs (three earned) on six hits and two walks. The free passes both came in the first inning, while four consecutive singles with two outs in the third ultimately put the game away.
But then again, the Cubs expected some rust. This first outing wasn’t going to prove much about what Hendricks can be moving forward. And with an 86.4 mph average exit velocity and a 31 percent called strike/whiff rate, this could be a start to build off of.
“I hope so,” Ross said. “I think he expects that, and we expect that. I’m sure that’s a good one he can put behind him there. His next start, he’ll be facing a really good team [in the Rays]. So, building off that is going to be key for him and us.”
As far as the velocity, the returns from start No. 1 after the program didn’t yield completely positive results.
Prior to him being shut down for good last season, the velocity was clearly down. In some of his best years, his fastballs (sinker and four-seamer) routinely combined to average at least 88 mph, with a peak of 88.8 mph in 2015.
He’s never been a pitcher who blows opponents away with elite — or even average — velocity. But last season, his fastballs averaged just 86.7 mph combined, the second-lowest mark of his career. That certainly correlated with his struggles on the mound. So, getting some of that velocity back became a point of focus during his recovery.
In his five rehab starts with Iowa, the velocity ticked up. He averaged 1-plus mph more on both the sinker and four-seamer in most of those outings than in 2022. He hit at least 88 mph 69 times, and he topped out at 90.2 mph in his last start Saturday, a number he hasn’t touched since Aug. 22, 2020.
So, the velocity program was clearly working. Unfortunately, that didn’t really translate during his season debut.
Hendricks’ sinker averaged 86.9 mph (a 0.4 mph increase from 2022) and his four-seamer averaged 87.2 mph (a 0.3 mph increase). Maybe it was a bit disappointing to not immediately see a real uptick in velocity (he did top out at 88.7 mph exactly a year after the last time he reached that number).
But again, it was also his first big league start in nearly 11 months. Those ticks could definitely come once he really gets back into the swing of things.
“There were some good ones,” Hendricks said. “I got out of my mechanics on a few, and you could see the velo dip, just not in a strong position. When I’m doing the things I need to do, it’s there, and it’s just going to keep getting better with the confidence that I have out there. I feel really good health-wise, where I’m at strength-wise and how my pitches are working. So, it’s just getting back into that baseball rhythm now.”
After an extremely long road, Hendricks has gotten the first start back out of the way.
It’s unlikely he’ll ever get back to the level of pitcher that once saw him finish third in NL Cy Young voting. But moving forward, he can be very valuable for the Cubs if he becomes that backend starter they can count on to give them a chance to win every fifth day.
“I’m going to take those positives that I was able to do, bad contact, a couple bad hits here and there,” Hendricks said. “You’ve just got to tip your cap. It’s back to work this week. Hopefully, get my rhythm, get in my routine, have everything be normal from here on out.”
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