Kyle Hendricks was steaming.
Sixty feet six inches away in the California sun, his catcher was shaking him off, calling for the changeup again and again in the face of Hendricks’ obvious frustration. Hendricks knew he couldn’t throw one, knew he didn’t have one. But the catcher was insistent, and the lanky right-hander finally rocked and fired the offspeed pitch he’d been trying to avoid all day. The ball—as he had anticipated—wholly failed to cooperate, bouncing well past the catcher and into the dirt behind home plate.
No, this wasn’t a rough outing in Dodger Stadium with Miguel Montero trying to get his starter to go to his money pitch. Rather, this moment took place over seven years ago, and this battery was more than a few miles away from Dodger Stadium at the time. In fact, the catcher wasn’t even a catcher full-time. And in his day job, he preferred that Kyle Hendricks call him dad. This is the story of how John Hendricks made his son, Kyle, throw a changeup.
The Wrigley infield was a special place after the Cubs punched their ticket to the NLCS last Tuesday night. Champagne-soaked players mingled with family, friends, and equally-soaked media in a spectacle not seen around the Cubs franchise in over a decade. John Mallee grabbed his pink-shirted daughter in a bear hug as she sprinted down the line towards him. Tom Ricketts did a radio interview over the phone while gripping his younger son tightly around the shoulders. Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer beamed with the easiness that only comes with victory as their families, too, joined them on the field.
In the middle of this melee, I came across the younger, and more famous, Hendricks. He was celebrating with his family, safe in the knowledge that he’d turned the series around for the Cubs in a pivotal Game Two start in St. Louis. This after worrying—as he told me in September—that he might not make the postseason roster at all. As I chatted with his family, we marvelled at the turnaround he’s gone through, and how—a week from that point—Hendricks would be starting Game Three of the NLCS, at home at Wrigley.
His father, John, was especially proud of that moment. He and I talked for a little while about how the younger Hendricks might approach that game, and I mentioned (as I discussed in my BP recap of Game Two of the NLDS) that Kyle had managed to generate whiffs on his changeup 65 percent of the time in St. Louis—a rate way above his career norms. The elder Hendricks nodded.
“I’m the one who made him throw that pitch. D’you want to hear that story?”
Of course I did. Now you get to hear it, too.
Hendricks, like most big-league pitchers, only had a few bad games—ever—before he hit college. The baseline talent level you need to get to The Show is so high that pretty much every big-leaguer is going to dominate the lower amateur levels. Hendricks was no different, succeeding all the way through high school on the back of a dominant fastball, and a curveball he called “Captain Hook.” He didn’t feel he needed to add a changeup. But one game at Capistrano Valley High School, in Mission Viejo, California, was different for Hendricks. He struggled mightily, and his dad got on him after the game.
“If you want to make it to the next level, you’re going to have to learn to throw the changeup,” John proclaimed.
Kyle didn’t want to. He was upset at himself over the game, and didn’t want to throw the new pitch, which some coaches had tried to teach him earlier. John Hendricks didn’t care. He grabbed a bucket of balls and a catcher’s mitt, and led his son to the side of the Hendricks house, where they’d set up a mound for Kyle to practice on. He put the bucket next to Kyle on the mound, put himself behind the plate, and set up for a changeup low and away.
Whoosh. Twenty feet outside.
Refusing to give in, John set up again, this time low and inside. He barked at his son, steaming in the heat, to throw the ball. Another miss, this time in the opposite direction. Again and again Hendricks threw, and again and again he missed the mark, getting madder by the second. Then, finally, it happened. Grabbing the last few balls out of the bucket, the younger Hendricks reared back and delivered a perfect strike into his father’s glove. The next two, as well, were strikes, and Kyle looked triumphant on the mound, believing his day was done.
Not so fast.
His father walked the 60 feet to the mound. “You go out there,” he said, gesturing to the backstop, “and you pick up all those balls. We’re doing this again.”
As he got to this point in the story, John Hendricks laughed, glancing over at his son a few feet away. “You should have seen his face,” he told me. “He was so mad.”
But Hendricks picked up all the balls, just like he was told, and the second bucket went down far better than the first. A few hours later, and Hendricks had found the pitch—in its nascent form—that would carry him to the big leagues, and allow him to dominate Cardinals hitters late last week. And it all came because of a bad game, and a dad who wouldn’t let him accept high-school success with just two pitches.
It’s easy to forget, when we see them on television every night, that even players as supremely talented as those who get to play in the major leagues have had to work—hard—to get where they are today. They had to put in hours behind their houses, playing catch with dads, moms, uncles, brothers, sisters, and aunts. They had to take countless long car rides, endure hundreds of early mornings, and work to compete with the best in the country. It’s hard work, and hearing stories like the one from John Hendricks about his son’s changeup put that into better context for me.
As he stood on the infield grass, surrounded by his family and flushed with the NLDS victory, I asked the younger Hendricks how it felt to have gotten to this point today, and how the atmosphere around the team had changed since he came up in the middle of last season. He couldn’t have been clearer.
“It’s been a huge change, huge change. I think it’s just the belief, man, belief in ourselves and belief in each other,” he told me. “We have confidence in every single guy on this team. You know, every guy in the bullpen, every guy off the bench, and every guy in the lineup, everybody has confidence in everybody else.”
He paused for a moment.
“It’s a special feeling, you know, and it doesn’t come around often, so we’re lucky.”
Facing a daunting task trailing the Mets 2-0 as they head to Wrigley, behind Hendricks—and the changeup he learned from his dad in the California heat seven years ago—the Cubs will seek to be luckier still.
Lead photo courtesy Jerry Lai-USA Today Sports.