What has been bothering Cubs right-hander Kyle Hendricks this season? There’s no question 2021 has been a down year for him, but the good news is that pitching coach Tommy Hottovy thinks he has pinpointed the problem.
In a season in which Hendricks’ ERA (4.81) is higher than it ever has been and he has given up more home runs than any point in his career, Hottovy said he thinks Hendricks’ struggles mostly have come down to two things.
The first has been Hendricks adjusting to how to focus himself during a noncompetitive season for the Cubs.
‘‘Every year he’s been here, minus the end of 2014, we’ve been pitching for something late in the season, whether it’s postseason, before he signed his contract,’’ Hottovy said. ‘‘It was a lot of proving that he can do this at this level for a long time, so I think it’s just different motivation right now.’’
Even in 2019, when the Cubs failed to make the playoffs for the only other time during Hendricks’ tenure, they didn’t get eliminated from contention until the final week. For years, there has been the expectation of the postseason to drive Hendricks.
‘‘Just trying to find new ways to motivate, new ways to refocus that energy,’’ Hottovy said.
Hottovy said he thinks he second factor in this rough season has been Hendricks perhaps forgetting a little about what has made him such a consistently good pitcher.
For example, Hendricks is really good at noticing what works for other pitchers and might have fallen into trying too hard to use what worked for them instead of his best stuff.
‘‘He’s almost got that photographic memory where he can almost picture somebody else getting a hitter out on a two-seamer in or a changeup down and away,’’ Hottovy said. ‘‘So he knows where those outs are, and sometimes he’ll lose sight of what makes him the best version of himself.’’
Pitchers have to learn to balance their gut instincts and trust in their own stuff with the information they get in a scouting report. Whereas a young pitcher might make the mistake of trusting his own stuff too much, a veteran such as Hendricks can sometimes go the other way.
The Cubs have an advantage in getting Hendricks back to his old self because he and Hottovy have been working together almost since Hendricks came up with the team.
Hottovy was hired as the Cubs’ run-prevention coordinator in December 2014, and he has been the Cubs’ pitching coach for the last three seasons.
‘‘I know Kyle backwards and forwards,’’ Hottovy said. ‘‘Even his postseason, offseason routine. When you have that history together, it definitely makes that easier.’’
Despite having a bad season, Hendricks is in a good place mentally, Hottovy said. There were certain goals for the season that Hendricks has met, namely finishing it healthy and reaching a certain number of innings pitched.
Hendricks finished one inning short of 200 in 2018, and that was one of his goals for this season. He sits at 176 with one start left, but Hottovy said Hendricks is pleased with the number of innings he has thrown this year.
The shortened season in 2020 hasn’t affected Hendricks, according to Hottovy, who said Hendricks viewed last season as ‘‘a normal year.’’ Even though he pitched only 81⅓ innings in 2020, Hendricks did enough throwing during his downtime and during the summer training camp that his overall number of innings would be closer to 130 or 140.
‘‘I think he’s in a good mindframe of what he was able to accomplish this year,’’ Hottovy said. ‘‘Obviously, results-wise and numbers-wise, it’s not where we wanted to be. You want to have good, consistent years, but I think there were still a lot of things he was able to accomplish.’’