After years in the background, Cubs ace Kyle Hendricks comfortable stepping into leadership role
“Kyle has been the same guy forever in terms of his demeanor, how he carries himself, how he treats people and his work ethic,” right-hander Jake Arrieta said.
MESA, Ariz. — When you ask Cubs pitchers, young and old, whom they look up to on the staff, you’ll hear a common name.
Whether they’re a soft tosser or approaching triple digits, they look up to Hendricks as a role model and someone to emulate.
Hendricks never has been the center of attention, and that isn’t likely to change, even though he’s the ace of the Cubs’ rotation. But that hasn’t stopped him from finding his voice in a Cubs clubhouse that has changed significantly in terms of vocal leaders since he got to the big leagues in 2014.
Growing into leadership doesn’t happen overnight, and it took time for the 31-year-old right-hander to get comfortable with it. But with the confidence of his manager and his teammates and a résumé to back it up, Hendricks is embracing his new role.
‘‘I’m more comfortable with myself as a leader,’’ Hendricks told the Sun-Times. ‘‘I think a lot of that has to do with just the organization and the people we have around here. They’ve always instilled confidence in me and told me to be who I am, be the pitcher I’ve always been. They haven’t forced me to be someone I’m not. Every year I’ve come in, it’s been more and more comfortable.’’
The Cubs’ recent rotations have been dominated by pitchers with big personalities, none of whom was afraid to say what was on his mind. Jake Arrieta, Jon Lester, John Lackey and even Jason Hammel not only were productive pitchers, but they were clubhouse leaders, too.
‘‘Those were just big dudes in general,’’ Hendricks said with a laugh. ‘‘When I was behind those guys, it was awesome learning from them, watching how they went about their work day in and day out. I took so much of that and use it in my routine now.’’
Before Arrieta left the Cubs after the 2017 season, he and Lester were the voices of the rotation. But while watching from afar in the last three seasons, he has seen Hendricks — a pitcher he helped to mentor — become one of the best starting pitchers in the majors and a mentor himself.
‘‘Kyle has made tremendous strides every year of his career,’’ said Arrieta, who has returned to the Cubs after three seasons with the Phillies. ‘‘Kyle has been the same guy forever in terms of his demeanor, how he carries himself, how he treats people and his work ethic. I just think that it’s more visible now than it has been at certain times in the past.
‘‘And not that he was overshadowed or not that he should ever have been overshadowed, but certain guys have garnered a little bit more attention, and that’s understandable. But Kyle has remained true to himself.’’
You probably could define Hendricks’ leadership style as subtle. It’s different from how players such as first baseman Anthony Rizzo or outfielder Jason Heyward do it, but it’s effective.
‘‘Leadership can come in different forms,’’ Hendricks said. ‘‘I guess it depends on the individual that it’s coming from. . . . The things I see [in terms of leadership] are, No. 1, work ethic. Just the way they go about their business day in and day out, the energy they bring to the ballpark.
‘‘Every action they do, the words that come out of their mouth are always in the affirmative. I feel like leaders just keep things positive. Always looking forward but learning from what’s going on around you.’’
‘‘The leadership qualities he has are really quiet and unassuming, but [they’re] so great and detailed when it comes to the things that have helped him,’’ manager David Ross said. ‘‘I think with the type of pitchers we have, his leadership role has grown even more in the way that he talks to the other pitchers about what he uses and what he thinks.’’
Hendricks can be seen taking young players aside around the Cubs’ complex and having conversations with them about pitching, baseball and life, and his influence has been felt throughout camp this spring.
But that’s not new to Hendricks. It’s the same thing pitchers such as Arrieta or, most recently, Lester did for him when he was learning how to be a big-leaguer.
‘‘I have always loved having those conversations with the young guys,’’ Hendricks said. ‘‘Jon Lester had such a big impact while he was here, and not seeing his face around here every day definitely changes things a little bit.
‘‘I kind of take that [role] on. . . . I’m never going to be Jon Lester, but I’ll keep being Kyle. Go out there and have these conversations, like they used to have with me.’’