Give him a polo shirt, khakis and a black backpack with a Cubs logo, and Kyle Hendricks could walk into the Cubs’ front office and claim a cubicle without raising an eyebrow.
That is, until manager Joe Maddon or pitching coach Chris Bosio noticed he wasn’t around to beat Zack Greinke, or to earn the Cubs’ 100th victory, or to finish off a league ERA title – or on Saturday night at Wrigley Field to take the mound against Clayton Kershaw trying to pitch the Cubs to their first World Series in 71 years.
The man Pedro Strop calls “El Profesor” may look on the street like a guy from Maddon’s analytics “geek department,” with the kind of Ivy League education to put him on a Theo Epstein management track.
But on the mound this year Hendricks is brute force with a changeup, sheer power of mind and vision, a significant part of the Cubs’ historic success so far. And if he beats Kershaw in a rematch of Game 2 of this National League Championship Series (won 1-0 by the Dodgers), he might actually start to get recognized in public when hanging out with teammates.
“I’m excited to get another crack at it,” said Hendricks, who allowed only an Adrian Gonzalez, opposite-field home run in his Game 2 loss. “It’s obviously going to be fun. It should be a close game. It’s definitely going to be important, but in order to approach that game, you have to have simple thoughts, and take the same approach as you would any other game.”
By now, most know that Hendricks went from fifth starter on the Cubs’ staff to Cy Young contender with a breakout 2016 built on greater use of a four-seam, almost-90-mph fastball to complement the two-seam cutter he plays off the best changeup on the staff.
“You thought he was going to be very good, but it would be hard to imagine him being as good as he turned out to be this year,” said Maddon, who often has referred to “different kinds of dominant” when describing Hendricks’ methods.
“It was pretty impressive.”
And rarer, it seems, with every new crop of young power arms in the game.
“Hendricks is a component that baseball’s missing out on,” said Hall of Fame pitcher John Smoltz. “In a starved era of miles per hour, this kid is a pitcher. We’re bypassing them. We’re not even looking at them anymore. Scouts aren’t even given the opportunity to draft those guys.”
Not when 95- and 100-mph prospects seem to lurk around every first-round corner of the draft these days.
Just ask Kershaw, the reputed best pitcher on the planet with the 95-plus fastball and power breaking stuff, who was selected seventh overall in the 2006 draft.
“He’s kind of like the Greg Maddux of this generation,” said Kershaw, who must beat Hendricks Saturday or go home, “with his ability to sink the ball, cut the ball and put him in spots where hitters are enticed to swing at it, but can’t put a barrel on it. He’s really good at mixing speeds, changing it up. He’s a tough guy to go against.”
It’s tempting to wonder how long Hendricks can keep the success rolling when watching him change speeds, locate 89-mph fastballs and induce some of the weakest contact among any pitchers in the game.
But it’s also no fluke. He has had success in the majors since a 13-start debut in 2014 in which he went 7-2 with a 2.46 ERA for a last-place Cubs team.
In fact, the Dartmouth graduate who used to build his own scouting reports and attack plans on hitters in the minors, was able to quickly take advantage of the more detailed and sophisticated plans put together by Cubs coach Mike Borzello and former big-league pitcher Tommy Hottovy in the majors.
If it goes without saying Hendricks is one of the most intelligent pitchers in the game, he also is certainly one of the most self-aware.
Maddux, naturally, was his idol. But Hendricks is no poseur wannabe. He’s a student of his own game, incorporating such un-Maddux methods as yoga into his preparation, while constantly working on improving or trying to add pitches, and always keeping the emotions low to keep the focus high.
“I love the no-emotion thing,” said teammate Joe Smith, the reliever who knew little about Hendricks until being traded from the Angels this summer. “No highs, no lows. that’s great, especially in the course of a game, in a big situation. I remember when I played with [Cy Young winner] Corey Kluber in Cleveland. He was the same way, stone-faced, the whole time.”
Maybe part of it’s the path taken by an under-the-radar, Ivy League right-hander, who waited until the eighth round to be selected by the Rangers in 2011, then was traded as a minor-leaguer to the Cubs in the Ryan Dempster deal – the Cubs’ second choice after a deal with Atlanta for Randall Delgado fell apart.
Or maybe it’s just who this nondescript-looking, ultra-competitive 26-year-old is.
“That’s just how I go about my business,” said Hendricks, who has rediscovered a happy place with his mechanics this year, but describes a larger overall method to his mad success. “I definitely have to use my intelligence. I’m not a pure stuff guy. A lot of guys in the big leagues don’t have to rely on intelligence; they can get by on stuff. But to get to the next level in the big leagues, I have to have awareness, a feel of what hitters are trying to do to me.”
Next level? Saturday’s chance to clinch a Cubs World Series berth certainly would qualify.
“I really believe it’s about his confidence,” Maddon said. “His confidence is so high. I really feel good about him in that moment.
“He’s earned this opportunity. He’s put himself in this position. He’s ready for the challenge.”