Cubs: Calendar turning to May is good news for Kyle Hendricks

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

After eight scoreless innings against the formidable Dodgers lineup, Chicago Cubs manager David Ross decided to take Kyle Hendricks out. As Hendricks walked into the dugout, Ross extended his hand, his way of saying “thanks, you’re done.” Hendricks’ response was “You sure?” (go to minute 3:00 of the video). Hendricks would get two more outs in the ninth before Ross finally pulled him, just one out shy of a shutout.

Many fans watched Hendricks’ April starts from behind the couch, dreading the next outburst of opposing runs. His return to form against the Dodgers provided a rare bright spot in a season so far characterized by more pain than gain for the Cubs. And it was also typical of Hendricks, who historically has gone from Awful April to Magnificent May.

Here are Hendricks’ career ERAs by month:

  • March/April: 4.88
  • May: 2.64
  • June: 4.23
  • July: 2.64
  • August: 3.65
  • September/October: 2.88

(You can see more of his career monthly stats here. )

The single biggest factor in his May improvement involves walks: specifically, less of them. April is one of only two months in which Hendricks has a career walk percentage over seven; it drops to just over four in May. The only other month Hendricks exceeds a seven percent walk rate is June, which also has historically been a tougher month for him, though not nearly is bad as April because he’s surrendered fewer hits.

Because the words “April” and “Chicago” add up to “cold,” the frigid early season temperatures are an obvious suspect for Hendricks’ April struggles. But there isn’t a lot of evidence that temperatures correlate with pitching effectiveness. It could be moisture, or rather the absence of it, but that doesn’t seem to be a decisive explanation either. As this year’s experience demonstrates, while April is frequently cold in Chicago, it’s also frequently soggy (Wrigley Field is in the top five in the majors this year in Ponchos per Nine Innings).

Al Yellon thinks Hendricks struggles early because he’s so reliant on his changeup, for which it takes the right-hander a while to develop the proper feel. While this is difficult to measure, it’s a plausible theory.

We all know that Hendricks has a first rate changeup, but it may surprise some to learn exactly how good it is. Here are Kyle’s career wRC+ allowed for his four main pitches (in order of use):

  • Sinker: 110
  • Changeup: 54
  • 4-Seamer: 119
  • Curve: 84

Fifty-four. Against Hendricks’ changeup, major leaguers have hit worse than Austin Hedges. Given the dominant nature of the pitch and the frequency with which Hendricks throws it, it would not be surprising if problems with the changeup translate to poor overall performances. And, given that the changeup almost certainly requires a considerable degree of feel, it’s quite possible that Yellon is correct: it simply takes Hendricks time to figure out how best to throw his changeup in relation to his other pitches in any given season.

I’d suggest an additional possible issue: age. As we get older, more stuff starts hurting more often for longer. Each new season presents not only a new baseball and a new parade of horrible April days in Wrigley, but a new physical challenge for Hendricks as he figures out how to mine the most success he can out of his slowly deteriorating body, Sure, this is a challenge all pitchers face, but for a guy like Hendricks, whose entire game depends on his ability to deploy fairly ordinary stuff with a neurosurgeon’s precision, the challenge is even more acute.

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He’ll probably never be as dominant as he was for the Maddon-era Cubs, and the distance between success and disaster is inexorably shrinking, as it does for all players as they age. But at the top of his game, Hendricks is still a joy to watch: literally hand-crafting pitches in an age of industrial velocity. For his next start you can come out from behind the couch.