Chicago Cubs: Kyle Hendricks is already the ace Cubs need

(Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
(Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images) /

Chicago Cubs’ Kyle Hendricks may be soft-spoken, but already a top starter for the Cubs, his work on the mound does the talking for him.

Right now, who would you put at the top of the Chicago Cubs rotation for Opening Day in Miami? Okay, probably Kyle Hendricks? This might be a foregone conclusion for some, maybe most. Others may feel like the Cubs need Yu Darvish or one of the other free agent starters out there.

Unless you’re Kyle? But of course, he’s going to defend his team as is.

They do need one more starter to solidify the rotation. But regardless of additional moves Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer make, Hendricks has absolutely earned the right to be considered a top-of-the-rotation arm.

The ace.

Even if you throw Darvish or someone else into the mix. And internally, I believe Jose Quintana is on his way, and you can’t count out a veteran like Jon Lester.

Hendricks’ resume

He might have been considered a mere No. 5 starter before the 2016 season, but Hendricks ended that year as a Cy Young candidate. Most importantly, he established himself as a rotation glue guy for the Cubs, and a trusted postseason performer. He doesn’t have to dazzle you with heat to come up big, taking a no-hitter into the ninth against the Cardinals in September of that year, and starting Game 7 of the World Series.

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The 28-year-old former Dartmouth student, affectionately known as “The Professor,” brings that same classroom focus and preparation to the pitcher’s mound.

Entering his fifth big league season in 2018, Hendricks is one start shy of 100 for his career, and already, has thrown 50.0 postseason innings. In 10 starts, he has allowed just 16 earned runs and has a 1.16 WHIP and 2.88 ERA.

Already battle tested

His record in those postseason games is 2-2, but the win/loss mark is shortsighted. In the 2016 playoffs, Hendricks left his first start against the Giants due to injury. Was on the wrong side of a 1-0 loss to the Dodgers in the NLCS And threw nine innings of one-run ball against the Indians in the World Series between Games 4 — another 1-0 game he was on the wrong end of — and 7.

All total, three earned runs over those five starts, with two coming in the first game, or 3 2/3 innings against the Giants. Even in Hendricks’ first two career postseason starts in 2015 — against the Cardinals and Mets — he struck out 11 batters against just one walk over 8 2/3 innings.

While he did not factor in either decision, his work paved the way for the Cubs to advance past St. Louis into the NLCS and he suffered from virtually no run support as he limited the Mets to two runs.

‘Quietly’ ascending the ranks

Over the last two seasons, Hendricks ranks fourth among all starters in home runs allowed per 9 (0.88), literally right behind Clayton Kershaw (0.86). His 3.49 FIP is ninth in that span, just behind Madison Bumgarner (3.48). Since 2015, Hendricks is still among the leaders and tied with Dallas Keuchel (3.44), and just a tick above Lester. Not bad company. According to FanGraphs for 2017, Hendricks’ 2.5 WAR, even though he was not a qualified starter for the season, was just above Jake Arrieta (2.4).

Between 2016-17, Hendricks led Cubs’ qualified starters with an 81.9 percent strand rate, good for second overall, only behind Kershaw. For Cubs starters in 2017 that topped at least 100 innings, Hendricks’ strand rate led the way (82.5%).

Finishing strong

FanRag’s Ryan Davis recently wrote about Hendricks and shared insight from the pitcher himself from an interview with Sporting News last August.

At that time, Hendricks was just a few starts into his second-half turnaround, and he spoke about his mechanics. As Davis notes, Hendricks rebounded quite well from a first-half (4-3, 4.09 ERA) marred by inconsistencies and injury.

In the second half of 2017, Hendricks found his groove, going 3-2 over 13 starts (78.0 innings). He was the best in the NL, third overall, at stranding runners (89.1%). Tied-forth in BB/9 among the NL (2.19), and fifth in FIP (3.38) just behind Quintana. His 1.8 WAR for the second half was eighth. Hendricks nearly cut his second-half ERA in half (2.19).

Next: Reaction moves are never wise, as Jed Hoyer well knows

As Chicago experienced tough luck (to put it mildly) early on in 2017, and each starter dealing with a stay on the disabled list at some point, save for Quintana, the Cubs would obviously love for a full season from Hendricks in the coming season. Recently, Hendricks spoke to his goals for 2018, which include cracking 200 innings for the first time.

Between his preparation, focus, and yes, some healthy luck, as the numbers show, Kyle Hendricks is a guy you can rely on for a big game.