Cubs: What Kyle Hendricks needs to do to have success on Opening Day

(Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
(Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images) /

Kyle Hendricks is the first one to admit he didn’t perform the way he or the Cubs expected in 2021. He was uncharacteristically inconsistent – and you can break his season into three chunks: bad, good and then some more bad to close out the year.

Despite his struggles and career-worst 4.77 ERA, the 32-year-old right-hander will get the ball on Thursday afternoon at Wrigley Field, making his third straight Opening Day start. He’ll start opposite reigning National League Cy Young winner Corbin Burnes, so the margin for error is slim, to say the least.

In 2021, the Brewers’ run to the top of the division was powered, at least in part, by a dominant showing against the Cubs. Milwaukee went 14-5 against David Ross’ club last season – and at first glance, you might think Hendricks was part of the problem, but that’s not exactly accurate.

He made two April starts against Milwaukee: a six-shutout inning performance on April 7 and another six-inning stint on April 23, in which he allowed just two earned runs. He didn’t face the Brewers again until June 28 – and he, again, lasted six frames, allowing four earned in a loss on the road. His fourth and final outing against them came in August, and was a total disaster. He lasted just four innings and allowed nine runs in a 17-4 loss.

That mirrors the ups and downs we saw from Hendricks, as a whole, last year – but the good news is there are a few things he can do to get off on the right foot here in 2022.

Hendricks recently spoke with The Athletic (subscription required) about what he needs to do on the mound in order to get back to being the stabilizing presence he’s been for much of the last decade – and it all starts with working down and away to hitters early in the count.

If he can establish the zone early with his sinker, it’ll be a big first step toward getting things back on track. Given his lack of velocity, he’s not a pitcher who can survive working up in the zone – and we saw that last year when he allowed 31 home runs – the second-most in the National League.

Cubs need Kyle Hendricks to stay down in the strike zone more regularly

When Hendricks is effective, he’s pounding the lower portion of the strike zone not just with his sinker, but also with his change-up and curveball. Getting away from that last year, hitters sat on pitches that caught too much of the plate – and punished them in ruthless fashion.

Putting hitters in advantageous counts cost Hendricks dearly last year. When hitters were ahead in the count against him in 2021, they torched him to the tune of a 1.024 OPS. But when he was able to put himself in strong counts and get ahead, that number fell to .711. 

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Next. What to watch for this weekend at Wrigley Field. dark

So if you’re watching on Thursday and trying to get a feel for what type of start we’re in for from Hendricks, here are the three keys: living low in the zone and avoiding leaving pitches up, getting ahead of hitters early in the count and getting through the first inning clean. If he can do that, he’ll do his part to put the team in a position to come away with their first win of the year.