A few years ago I, like many fans of the Chicago Cubs, was caught up in the euphoria of the Cubs 2016 playoff run. On their way to winning the World Series, a pitcher made a mark for himself on the national stage. At least, that’s what the Cubs fans I associate with assumed at the time. After his dominant game six start of the National League Championship Series I thought there was little question as to the merits of Kyle Hendricks: Cubs ace and a top MLB pitcher.
To the surprise of many Cubs fans, neither of the above realizations caught on among national followers of the league.
Following the 2016 season, I can still recall listening to Paul Sporer, noted pitching analyst and guru, talk about Hendricks on a podcast and one had to sift through a lot of negatives to find a single positive. I’m not trying to single out Sporer (he eventually switched gears when it comes to Hendricks) but that Sporer was so willing to dismiss Hendricks following his brilliant 2016 campaign is emblematic of why Hendricks is the ace of the Cubs and one of the best pitchers in MLB who no one really acknowledges as such.
The emotionless Hendricks made his debut for the Cubs in 2014. Since then he has logged 975.0 innings pitched while amassing an ERA of 3.11 and a WHIP of 1.107. If those traditional stats don’t float your boat, he’s put together a FIP of 3.51, DRA of 3.27, and an ERA+ of 133.
Dig a little deeper and it becomes even odder that Hendricks remains on the outside of national discussions of the best pitchers in baseball. His career K% is 21.5 compared to a 5.6 BB%. Meanwhile, he only allows an average exit velocity of 86.6 MPH. It doesn’t matter what site you prefer for your baseball statistics, they all agree that Hendricks is among the best throughout his career.
Yet, Hendricks’ name is not listed among the choices for National League Cy Young at any of the major sites, nor is he usually given odds on winning the award by Las Vegas. Oddsmakers don’t believe the writers will even give him due consideration for the award.
Within baseball circles, Hendricks fares no better. Every projection system, from PECOTA to ZiPS consistently predicts that this will be the year when Hendricks comes back to reality. For me, it has become a rite of passage to open up PECOTA, write what they think will happen with Hendricks, and then laugh at how wrong they end up being come seasons end.
Why does Hendricks routinely get the short stick? Well, there’s only one Kyle Hendricks and he doesn’t fit the MLB pitcher mold in any way.
The modern MLB pitcher is built around having a power arm, accumulating lots of strikeouts, and wiping opposing hitters away with a power slider. Hendricks hasn’t had a single season where he averages more than 89.9 MPH on his fourseam fastball. Not only is he not flashy, but his fastball is downright slow compared to the rest of the league.
The pitch that Hendricks puts away most batters with isn’t a crisp and tight slider, but a changeup that travels on the same plane as his fastball, deceiving hitters. Hendricks’ main game is producing soft contact over and over again. The approach, and ensuing results, of the Dartmouth graduate, leaves analysts, fans, and projection models in a state of constant befuddlement.
Add all of the above together and you get to the heart of what makes the Cubs ace so special but also what leads to him being so easily dismissed by national baseball fans and media. Hendricks will continue to do what he does best, locate his pitches with an extreme horizontal and vertical command that is virtually unequaled throughout the rest of MLB. His precise command will generate plenty of whiffs and soft contact. He will end the year as one of the best pitchers in all of baseball. At the same time, the Cubs hurler won’t be mentioned as one of the best nor will it be likely that he finds himself taking home any hardware no matter how great his season winds up being. There’s no pitcher in MLB quite like Kyle Hendricks and that’s great for the Cubs but that leaves him perpetually slept on and underappreciated by the rest of the world.