I remember it like it was yesterday. The quiet stoicism obvious to anyone watching the game. No pumping fists or screams into a glove after each inning. No argument with the manager when was pulled. Just a slow walk off the mound as Kyle Hendricks was done for the night. He had only pitched seven and a third innings, but those seven and a third innings were two-hit, shutout ball. Hendricks had just dismantled a strong Los Angeles Dodgers lineup like it was nothing in one of the most important games in Chicago Cubs history.
Kyle Hendricks did eventually smile later that fall. But he didn’t allow himself to do so until the job was done. When he’s on the mound, it’s all business. He is focused, and he is calm. He finished third in Cy Young voting last year, but Hendricks is a perfect fifth starter for the 2017 Chicago Cubs.
A huge part of the transition Hendricks made from oft an early exiter to one of the most trusted pitchers in baseball and holder of the best qualified ERA in 2016 was a change in pitch usage. That change was one that he was hesitant to make, as old Wrigelyville friend Sahadev Sharma detailed in a wonderful article. Despite being apprehensive about changing his approach in the middle of the season, Hendricks listened and understood what the coaches were telling him. He made the change, and the rest is history.
The physical changes themselves taught us a lot about Hendricks. It showed how he can best use his full arsenal and command to be a top pitcher in the league. We learned that a pitcher without classic high-velocity pitches can be successful against big league hitters over the course of a season. But more than anything, the changes made by Hendricks to become one of the best in baseball showed his willingness work with coaches and adjust.
Being a lifeless robot that follows orders is not exactly what’s being celebrated here. Rather, the attitude that Hendricks has towards the game is what makes him special and a great fit for the fifth starter role. He simply cares about being successful more than anything else. No accolades or titles needed. Hendricks is who he is and pitches how he pitches. What matters is the results.
From a purely mental standpoint, nobody fits the fifth starter role better than Hendricks. He’s quiet and unassuming, and he has shown that he is willing to perform in any role that is handed to him. That’s the chemistry and clubhouse reason why Hendricks is a great man at the end of the rotation. There is also a purely strategic benefit from having Hendricks at the end of the rotation.
In the same way that Joe Maddon likes to use a “real” hitter rather than a pitcher at the bottom of the lineup, Hendricks can serve as that “ninth hitter” table-setter when the rotation turns around. With a rotation full of good arms, and yet with a clear top three, it makes sense to split up the pitchers that are the most highly trusted. The Cubs will never play a series in which one of Jake Arrieta, Jon Lester, and Hendricks doesn’t pitch. That’s a luxury that not many teams have. There is also the same chance of having a three game set with all three pitchers going as if Hendricks was the first starter. In the grand scheme of things, the place in the rotation only matters relative to the others.
The title of fifth starter is simply that, a title. Back when the starting rotation first became a real thing, pitchers didn’t actually go in order. Managers moved players around depending on which team they were playing and when they were playing them. With the advent of worrisome pitching injuries, the space between starts has become more consistent. Striving for favorable matchups in series against the best teams, however, has not gone away. Perhaps Joe Maddon has just found a creative way to do that.
For Kyle Hendricks, the titles simply don’t matter. He’s ready to take on whatever role is handed to him by Joe Maddon. Not only is this good for the mental strength of Hendricks and Anderson, and whomever else it may affect, but it is also good for the Cubs as a whole. With a small amount of depth gone from the departure of Jason Hammel, the Cubs have had to get creative without how they approach different series. With the rotation set up as it is, it’s hard to believe that the Cubs will lose very many series this year. That alone will put them in a good position for the regular season. And when the postseason arrives, there will naturally be some moving and shifting, but, for now, Kyle Hendricks fits the fifth starter role like a glove.
Lead photo courtesy Charles LaClaire—USA Today Sports