“Don’t ever permit the pressure to exceed the pleasure.” It’s a famous Maddon-ism designed to keep players loose. With their 17-4 record this month and a cushy division lead, the boys in blue don’t seem to need the reminder. But some fans out there (you know who you are), definitely do.
The dog days aren’t just for players anymore. Projected playoff odds have tantalized fans since January, and now the August grind, winning or not, is wearing thin. And because they root for the Cubs, the natural reaction for some is to start looking for the catch, with each minor setback an early warning sign of potentially crippling disappointment to come.
Weary of the expectations-fueled handwringing, an esteemed colleague recently announced, “I had more fun watching the 2015 Cubs.” And who could blame him? Wading through a full season of hype (and the fan reaction it generates) is kind of a drag. Unreasonable as it may be, mere satisfaction for many this year suddenly seems contingent on a pennant. By comparison, last year’s surprising third place experience was a downright party.
It’s all about perspective. The carefree underdog wins are gone, but unforeseen sources of baseball joy abound. You just have to know where to look. At season’s opening, for example, no one would have predicted that Kyle Hendricks’s ERA would top the league in August or that Willson Contreras would be the Cubs’ busiest receiver of the second half. How well they have fared together has been equally surprising. So in answer to some extremely (hashtag) FirstPlaceProblems, may I present Exhibit A:
Hendricks and Contreras began the year an uncertain fifth starter and a converted catching prospect, and have each spent the summer shattering expectations. Since Contreras’s arrival midseason, the reserved pitcher and exuberant catcher/outfielder have shined in nine shared starts in the battery. In opposites-attract fashion, the pairing has seemed to enhance individual strengths and ameliorate weaknesses, revealing each other’s best on the big stage. And that, it turns out, is fun for all.
When the Contreras-as-major-league-catcher experiment was about to begin this June, he and Hendricks did not match well on paper. Contreras’s still-developing framing skills gave Maddon pause: “Kyle’s an edge guy. You want a catcher that’s going to grab the edges for him really well. That’s where I’m hung up.” But when Contreras burst on to the offensive scene with an OPS over 1.000 in his first two weeks, Maddon’s hang-ups quickly gave way to prioritizing plate appearances.
Each resulting start from this unlikely duo has yielded impressive results. With Contreras behind the dish, Hendricks has racked six wins, three no decisions, and held every opposing lineup to two earned runs or less. The outings have been an important piece of Hendricks’s remarkable 2016, but it may be tempting to assume that Contreras was simply along for the ride on Hendricks’s dominance. From player and coach perspectives, however, there seems to be a good deal more symbiosis going on when these starkly differing personalities unite.
With underwhelming velocity, but overwhelming intellect, Hendricks has always beaten hitters with deception, command, and, perhaps most importantly, knowledge. True to his professorial nickname, Hendricks not only boasts an Ivy League education and stoic demeanor, his reputation for thoroughly studying and breaking apart hitters precedes him.
It’s been a key component of his strategy since Dartmouth, when scouting reports were forced to share brain space with a major course in Economics. His former catcher seemed to pity the opponents a post-grad Hendricks met in the minors: “If you can imagine all the effort he put into the combination of baseball and school, and then put that all into just baseball, you can obviously see what has come from him.”
Matriculating to the bigs was an even greater boon for Hendricks’s game: “I dove deep into the scouting reports right away when I got up there. That was something coming up through the minor leagues, I would even watch video, but it was limited what they had… Once I got up, the scouting reports that are available to us were just unbelievable.”
Pitching coach Chris Bosio recently quantified how valuable this information can be: “Getting to know the lineups is big, and when a guy like Kyle can dissect it, meaning go over the scouting reports pitch by pitch, and really break you down, that can mean as many as 30-40 strikeouts a year.” Thus, in Hendricks’s case, knowledge truly is power, and one would think a much less experienced battery mate could become a liability over the course of a game.
Hendricks suggested as much after his first outing with Contreras, in probably the kindest way possible: “(Catching) is the toughest position to learn up here. There’s still a lot to develop and learn. The receiving and blocking was great. The game plan stuff is the toughest part. The receiving and blocking is natural. Our reports are complex. To simplify it is the only thing there.” It seems the Professor would need to become a teacher.
Fortunately, Hendricks would find an extremely eager and able student in Contreras. Maddon has been praising Contreras’s baseball mind and determination from the beginning: “He’s learning. He’ll go through some struggles, but he’s a good learner. He’s a good study. He’s insatiable.” Well known for his flamboyant intensity in the field, it’s hardly surprising he would bring a similar passion to prep work. According to former minor league coach Mark Johnson, that is who Contreras has always been, for better or worse:
“He’s always been that real emotional player, wearing his emotions on his sleeves. When he was younger, it was kind of hard to contain at times…He’s always been so aggressive and always tried to do too much…When he started understanding he didn’t have to do as much as he was trying to do, and could simplify things and minimize movements, it started to take off for him…He’s a smart kid. He’s got this incredible passion to play the game, which is so much fun to watch. And I think it’s just a matter of playing and getting that experience.”
Overt emotion. Obvious passion. Trying to do and be everything for your team. These characteristics can certainly backfire at times, but they stem from an underlying self-confidence that can’t be taught. And, in the Show, such inner strength may rival the value of the most diligent preparation. Of course, packaging both together, with emotion channeled appropriately, is a formula for something truly special.
Hendricks certainly knows the value of self-assurance, as, for all his pregame planning, confidence on the mound has occasionally eluded him. When asked to explain his cerebral starter’s consistent success this year compared to last season’s ups and downs, that quality kept popping up from Joe Maddon: “His confidence probably could not be any higher than it is right now. I think a lot of what you’re seeing right now is the residue of great confidence in himself. He goes out there, and he expects to do well.”
Hendricks unsurprisingly offered a more thorough analysis, but the bottom line holds true: “My pitches are just working well…consistency with my pitches and their movement has been there. I think the biggest key has been using my curve ball and my four seam fastball a lot more. I’ve been pitching inside well with my four seam, I’ve been showing my curve ball in good counts, and showing it enough to get it into hitter’s minds so they’re not sitting on my two seam changeup so much.”
This season Hendricks has had the confidence to utilize his weaker pitches to make his bread and butter even more deadly, and he has his young battery mate to thank, in part: “Willy forces me. He keeps calling my curveball, keeps making me throw pitches like that and that’s what I need. I wouldn’t normally be confident enough to call it myself or shake to it. I know what my top two pitches are, sinker and changeup, I’m going to gravitate to those. So just having someone back there that keeps calling it, and then the more confident I get, the more I’ll keep [nodding].”
In exchange for such a valuable lesson in self-belief, Hendricks offers Contreras the ideal emotional example for reigning in the adrenaline. It’s one of the many qualities David Ross recently discussed while singing Kyle’s praises:
“He’s probably one of my favorite young teammates of all time, just the way he carries himself…bases loaded, nobody out, we’ll be in the dugout like, ‘look at Karl’s heart rate (we call him Karl), he’s so amped up right now.’…he just never, never, never wavers from his emotions, it doesn’t go up and down, he’s stays so even keel…He’s fearless out there. He’ll throw any pitch, it doesn’t matter. You’ve got to have some guts to throw Stanton three changeups in a row, right on right, thinking he might hit one over on Waveland the way he swings the bat. Kyle just executes the pitch, no emotion, turns around and strikes him out, and next batter. It’s just really cool to watch.”
Really cool, indeed. And probably hugely instructive to young Contreras, who is adding experience, knowledge, and emotional control to his natural self-confidence, and molding himself daily into a big league force behind the plate. By all accounts, the transformation is happening shockingly fast. After their complete game shutout, which Contreras caught a mere six weeks post-call-up, Hendricks was clearly impressed:
“The amount of information he’s been able to absorb over the past two months or so has been unbelievable…The last four or five innings, I don’t think I shook him off. We were grooving in the same mindset. When he came out to the mound a few times to tell me what pitch he wanted, it was the same one I wanted. It’s fun when it’s like that. You don’t have to think too much. You just shake yes and throw the pitch.”
Anyone who can persuade Kyle Hendricks to not think and have fun must be doing something extremely right out there. Obviously we can’t know the exact contribution, if any, Contreras has made to Hendricks’s remarkable run, nor can we necessarily credit Hendricks for Contreras’s speedy development. But it’s also hard to imagine either player outperforming what they have achieved together so far: a sweet spot of careful preparation, focused intensity, and a hint of passionate abandon.
They will clearly never reach Bryzzo-status with fans. Contrendricks (Hendreras?) likely won’t catch on. But I would keep an eye on these two. Worlds apart on the surface, their best attributes seem to be enhancing the others’ in beautiful, unforeseen ways that bode well for October and beyond. They are young guys lifting each other up in the common pursuit of expectation-surpassing excellence. It’s that 2015 feeling all over again.
So take heart, Cubs fans. Fall is near. Until then, don’t forget to find the fun. Revel in the pleasant surprises that weren’t supposed to work out so well. They are the reminders of how promising this team is, in this year or the next (or the next). The 2016 postseason train can’t possibly be the last for such talent. With 108 years of baggage in tow, the current trip may feel a bit more like business than pleasure. But it’s still okay to enjoy the ride.
Lead photo courtesy Patrick Gorski—USA Today Sports.