With only one month until the first two-game slate of spring training games are underway, the Chicago Cubs have a lot going on. Right now, though, I wanted to take some time away from all things hot stove and focus on what the team already has, specifically the longest-tenured Cubs player and the only one left from 2016, Kyle Hendricks, and how he can further improve in 2024.
Starting with his strengths, in 2023, Hendricks threw an elite changeup 41.1% of the time. He recorded a run value of +12 on this pitch, by far the best in his arsenal last season. For reference, Hendricks' change-up ranked fifth in the majors in terms of run value last year, but certain pitches, such as his fastball, left much to be desired:
Kyle Hendricks' 2023 BAA by pitch:
Change-up: .180/+12 RV
Sinker: .318/+1 RV
Four-seam fastball: .380/-5 RV
Curveball: .250/0 RV
Where the change-up was elite, Hendricks was toward the bottom of the league regarding his sinker and fastball efficiency. His fastball, in particular, ranked 505th in the league in RV, a steep decline from the 2 RV and 160th overall from a season prior. It's a good thing the change-up was so good and utilized so much more than anything else because, typically, having two pitches that opponents are batting over .300 on is a recipe for disaster.
What changes can Kyle Hendricks make to be more effective for the Cubs?
First and foremost, Hendricks needs to lock in his fastball to get back to the same level of efficiency we saw in 2022, where he allowed opponents a batting average of just .234. Hendricks was in the 92nd percentile of hard-hit rate last year and the 98th in exit velocity, so limiting hard contact is still something he's very good at doing regardless, but having another go-to putaway pitch wouldn't hurt matters.
The sinker, it may be time to scrap all together. He has allowed batting averages of .318, .283, .291, and .302, respectively, in the last four years. Given this pitch was utilized 35.1% of the time in 2023 alone, it certainly added to the 3.74 ERA (3.81 FIP) he recorded last year. Of course, 3.74 well outpaces the league average (4.33), so this isn't so much of a critique as it is a fine-tuning of sorts.
Still, to get back to the best version of himself, Hendricks will need to be able to lean on more than just hit change-up in 2024. It's interesting that after 2017, he got rid of his cutter. Perhaps bringing that back instead of his typical four-seamer would be a new way to keep hitters guessing if he still can't get a proper feel for the heater. The last time Hendricks utilized a cutter, he allowed a .250 opponent average, which would be moving in the right direction if nothing else.
The professor still has plenty left in the tank, and if he continues to play to his strengths while making fine adjustments, there's no reason to think he won't continue to be effective for the Cubs in 2024.