The Cubs’ Most Important Pitcher is Not Who You Think

Here’s an interesting stat: only four starting pitchers in MLB history (minimum 590 innings pitched) have posted a sub-2.94 ERA and a 3.5 K/BB rate or better in their careers: Cy Young, Pedro Martinez, Clayton Kershaw, and Kyle Hendricks.

Now, is Hendricks really anywhere near the same class as any of the other three pitchers on that list? Um… no. The vast majority of “fun facts,” by their nature, fall somewhere on the spectrum from “a bit misleading” to downright Orwellian in their ability to distort reality. But it does illustrate one important truth about Hendricks: he’s already vastly outperformed what any reasonable person expected him to do when the Cubs acquired him as part of a package for Ryan Dempster back in 2012. While Hendricks was highly regarded for his craftiness and stellar command at the time of the trade, it wasn’t uncommon to read a description like the one at Sports Illustrated, which described Hendricks as “the sort of college arm that tends to find its limit in the high minors where location and deception aren’t enough to get out high-level hitters.”

Four years into his big-league career, the cerebral, soft-tossing Hendricks continues to confound his velo-loving critics, who, as BP Wrigleyville’s Ken Schultz notes, are eagerly awaiting for Hendricks to struggle and prove that, no, you really can’t get by with an 87-mph-on-a-good-day “heater.” Meanwhile, Hendricks just keeps adding lines to his already-robust, presumably well-written and well-formatted (cause, you know, he’s an Ivy Leaguer) resume.

Starting gig? Check. Once the Cubs shipped Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel to Oakland in 2014, Hendricks found a spot in the Cubs rotation. He’s never looked back.

Postseason hero? Check. In 2016, Hendricks spun a gem against the Dodgers, going 7 ⅓ innings and allowing just two hits, earning the win and sending the Cubs to their first World Series since 1945. In the 2016 fall classic, he started Games 3 and 7, allowing just one earned over nine total innings. Then, in the 2017 NLDS, he out-dueled Stephen Strasburg in Washington, notching seven scoreless innings and earning the win.

ERA title? Check. In 2016, Hendricks’s led MLB with a 2.13 mark (the first time a Cub had won he ERA title since Bill Lee in 1938), leading to a third-place finish in Cy Young voting.

Cool nickname? You got it. “The Professor” may not have the same cache as “Mr. Cub” or “Hawk,” but I’m not sure there’s a more fitting nickname in baseball.

Last Friday, Hendricks and the Cubs agreed to a one-year, $4,175,00 contract, avoiding arbitration and vaulting Hendricks into the two-comma club for the first time in his career. It’s a significant raise for Hendricks, who made a paltry $760,500 in 2017. But for the non-Hendricks world, the signing is a blip on the radar, even in a deader-than-dead offseason. If you, as I did, had nothing better to do on Friday night than to scroll through your MLB news app of choice, you would’ve seen, over and over and over again, “(Insert Young MLB Player Name) Avoids Arbitration, Signs for (Insert Obscenely Below Market Value Salary).”

However, I believe Hendricks’s signing is especially significant, for a few reasons:

1. Hendricks is still, even after his big raise, seriously underpaid.

For context, it’s worth noting that, on the same day Hendricks signed for $4,175,000, reliever Justin Wilson also signed for an ever-so-slightly higher $4,250,000. Last year, Wilson had a WARP of 0.3. Hendricks, even in an injury-shortened campaign, put up a 3.5 WARP, nearly 12 times that of Wilson.

For a bit more context, consider that the Cubs’ first “major” free agent signing (and yeah, I realize that “major free agent signing” is an oxymoron this offseason) was to sign Tyler Chatwood to a three-year, $38-million deal. Chatwood, understandably, has been significantly better outside of Coors since 2016. A major reason that the Cubs were eager to sign Chatwood is their hope that, when rescued from the burden of starting half his games at Coors, Chatwood’s 2018 numbers will resemble his away splits over the last few years. But take a look at how Chatwood’s numbers on the road since 2016 compare to Hendricks’s overall numbers over that same span:


Chatwood (away since 2016) Hendricks (since 2016)
ERA 2.57 2.51
BA .193 .220
OBP .292 .277
SLG .334 .342
K/9 7.0 8.0
HR/9 0.8 0.9 

So, if everything breaks right and Chatwood truly was undervalued due to his having to pitch half his games at Coors, the Cubs are hoping Tyler Chatwood can become…Kyle Hendricks, but with fewer strikeouts. The idea that The Real Kyle Hendricks should pitch 30 games for roughly one-third of what Chatwood is making is, I think, significant, and it leads us to the second reason this Hendricks deal is quietly hugely important…

2. It illustrates the importance of developing young starters, something the Cubs have failed to do.

Perhaps the one failure of the Epstein/Hoyer regime has been the inability to develop homegrown starting pitching talent. Per Sahadev Sharma at the Athletic, the Cubs have gotten an MLB-low 30 innings out of pitchers they acquired via the draft since 2012.

And maybe the word “failure” is too strong, given that this was the plan all along—draft the high-floor college hitters and figure out the pitching later (and even with the dearth of difference-making young arms in recent years, I doubt any Cubs fans are decrying the selections of guys like Bryant, Schwarber, or Happ). But, as even the Cubs’ brass freely admits, the time has come to give a little attention to the arms on the farm. The hirings of Jim Benedict (special assistant to baseball operations), Brendan Sagara (Minor League pitching coordinator), and Jim Hickey (Cubs’ pitching coach) is a start. As far as young starters who can make an immediate impact, there’s Hendricks, and… Hendricks.

While it’s not at all uncommon for players under team control to be underpaid until they hit free agency, Hendricks is unique in that he may represent the Cubs’ only shot at having an effective, cost-controlled starter over the next few years.

In 2017, one win from a starting pitcher cost $9,876,499, per Baseball Prospectus’s 2017 Compensation page. But, just as an (admittedly crude) experiment, let’s see how Hendricks would stack up against the rest of the Cubs’ projected starting rotation in 2018 if the same WARP-per-dollar figure would hold, using PECOTA’s 2018 projections:

Jon Lester Jose Quintana Tyler Chatwood Kyle Hendricks
2018 Salary $27.5M $8.85M $12.5M $4.175M
2018 WARP (PECOTA) 3.4 3.2 0.7 2.9
WARP/$ $8.088M $2.766M $17.857M $1.440M


A few quick notes about the above chart. First, I left off Mike Montgomery under the assumption that the Cubs will add one more arm to the staff in the coming weeks. Second, you could make a similar chart for any team with a mix of veterans and youth in the starting rotation; young players are criminally underpaid, while veteran free agents signings tend to be overpaid, which makes it easier for the younger arm to post a more impressive WARP/$ mark. But the Cubs’ dependency (overdependency?) on building the rotation through free agency amplifies Hendricks’s importance to the staff.

One other note: Hendricks has made a career of outperforming projections. It would not be the least bit surprising to see Hendricks post a higher WARP than the 2.9 PECOTA projects if he makes 30 starts.

Quietly, Kyle Hendricks might be the most important member of the Cubs rotation in 2018. While he may never reach the heights of 2016 again, one has to think the Cubs would be content with another season like 2017. Despite a drop in velocity that yielded several shaky outings, he finished strong after returning from a hand injury, ending the year with a 3.03 ERA that would have ranked ninth-best in MLB (between Luis Severino and Marcus Stroman) if he had the innings to qualify.

It doesn’t take an Ivy League degree in economics to understand that Hendricks, like most talented players under team control, is tremendously underpaid. However, the Cubs’ plan of focusing on drafting hitters while cobbling a pitching staff through free agency means it’s more crucial than ever that Hendricks keeps doing Hendricks things in 2018.

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2 comments on “The Cubs’ Most Important Pitcher is Not Who You Think”

Kathleen Cain McAleese

Nice story.

Judging by the thoughtfulness, originality and quality of your analysis—and the fact that you work as a high-school English teacher (God’s work!)—I suspect that you are as undervalued and underpaid in your field as Hendricks is in his. And that may not be the only thing you have in common.

Keep up the good work!


To that second point, I think it’s notable just how little the Cubs have gotten out of non-first round picks in the draft over the past several years, at least so far.

They obviously have a very strong track record on first-round picks. They’ve also found some amateur IFA players (Jiménez, Torres) who were key pieces in trades, but those were big-bonus IFA signings who are fairly akin to first-round draft picks.

From after the first round of the draft, however, what do the Cubs have to show from several drafts? Cease was an overslot 6th-rounder who was on a good enough path as a prospect to be a valuable trade chip in the Quintana trade. There are some minor leaguers who are OK prospects and could still take a step forward.

Overall, however, the Cubs currently have very little to show for their non-first round picks from several drafts. It’s true that the odds of any individual player becoming a useful major leaguer fall pretty dramatically after the top half of the first round, but a team still expects to find some useful players from non-premium draft picks (and needs to do so to sustain success).

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