After a tumultuous and exciting offseason, the Cubs are in many ways different than they were in October of last year. They have a new right fielder and a new second baseman, each of whom is a clear improvement over last year’s team. The Cubs also have newfound starting pitching depth that we here at BP Wrigleyville have covered exhaustively this offseason.
Change is, of course, good and needed. But recent acquisition Adam Warren, for example, is exciting not just because he is good (he is), but also because he is still novel to Cubs fans. Accordingly and deservingly, he has received lots of attention both at this site and across Cubsdom over the past several months.
Sometimes, though, change can lead us to forget what we have in the first place. I chose Warren as an example of the new and novel because he is perceived to be locked in a rotation battle with established-Cub Kyle Hendricks. So in this case, with apologies to Warren, I am writing to remind you that the 26-year-old Hendricks is also a very good major league pitcher. And we shouldn’t expect anything different from him in 2016.
These are Hendricks’ career statistics. In 260 innings, he has put up 4.5 WARP, a pace that would be becoming of any solid three starter in the league. He’s allowed a TAv of .240, which is 20 points better than league average, and he holds a cFIP of 94, which suggests that he should be about six percent better than league average going forward overall. Though the 2015 results were somewhat diminished from Hendricks’ dazzling small-sample-size rookie campaign, they were still very solid and showed marked improvements in key areas that bode well for his future. He raised his excellent GB% to 53 percent, and pitched with a FIP and DRA that suggested his ERA of 3.95 was inflated a bit by bad luck. He threw 180 innings without incident. And most importantly, he raised his strikeout rate from 5.3 K/9 to 8.3 K/9. To be clear, this is a remarkable jump, and it moves him from decidedly below average as a strikeout pitcher to decidedly above average—39th among 141 pitchers who threw at least 100 innings in 2015.
The importance of the increased strikeout rate should not be understated (even if, yes, we should wait to see if it’s replicated next year), because it suggests that Hendricks is not just the same pitch-to-contact finesse guy who appears at the back of nearly every rotation in baseball. Hendricks is not just lucky that people don’t hit him harder—he has the command and the stuff to get hitters out.
His most devastating weapon is his changeup, a pitch that his father taught him in high school. It earned a stellar 26.0 percent whiff rate last year, and it adds a legitimate plus-plus pitch to his arsenal. That, plus his excellent control, make him a viable and often dangerous pitcher to face. Here’s the change in action last postseason:
Projections systems agree. PECOTA currently has Hendricks slated to put up 1.7 WARP (3.59 ERA/3.91 DRA) but in only 137 innings of work. Here is where I think we are most underestimating Hendricks. It is true that pitchers have to compete for their spot in the rotation every spring, but Hendricks deserves to be there as much as anyone else. I would easily bet the over on 137 innings, and with a full starter’s workload, Hendricks would come out to around 2.2-2.5 WARP with these projections.
On a prorated basis, these projections actually have Hendricks producing more WARP/inning than both Jason Hammel and John Lackey. I don’t think that this is a fluke, and I don’t think that this is an unlikely outcome. Hendricks could very easily continue to improve as he applies his work ethic, intelligence, and skill to the league for a third year. Lackey should be solid, but is coming off his best season in eight years at age 37, and Jason Hammel, though excellent over stretches of time, has still never fully put together a year of consistent pitching in a starting rotation. PitcherList agrees, ranking Hendricks the 50th-best starter in baseball for 2016, ahead of both Hammel (54) and Lackey (55).
Sahadev Sharma wrote about Hendricks yesterday over at The Athletic, arguing that he has found a way to make a go of it in the strikeout age without elite stuff. Sharma writes, and I think he is right, that Hendricks’ limiting factor is his ability to pitch deep into a game and face lineup a third time. But even without going particularly deep into games, Hendricks has proved that he can provide quality and valuable innings as a starter in the major leagues, and there is little reason to think he will not be able to do so this year.