MESA, Ariz. – Before we get to how in the heck Kyle Hendricks is supposed to duplicate or even do a passable imitation of the ridiculous success he had last season, it’s worth going back to 2015.
That’s when things were not so good for Hendricks, when there wasn’t even the slightest hint he would be a finalist for the 2016 National League Cy Young Award. That’s when his pitching glass was half-empty.
He looked every bit his nickname: The Professor. He looked more bookish than bullish, throwing below-90-mph fastballs that some batters read like remedial English. And he wasn’t getting the chance to work his way out of it. In 32 starts, he got beyond the sixth inning only six times.
“The fact of the matter is my stuff wasn’t good enough in 2015 to go deep into ballgames, and the coaching staff knew that smartly enough,’’ he said.
Did he know it?
“In a way, yeah. In a way, I did,’’ Hendricks said last week, sitting at his spring-training locker. “But not consciously. You can’t think about that and have it in the front of your mind. You have to put that out of the way to try to perform. That’s the only way I got back into it by the end of the year.’’
His mechanics were off. It wasn’t Twister on the mound by any stretch of the imagination, but his limbs weren’t doing what they were supposed to be doing, the way they had the year before during his rookie season (a 2.46 ERA). His confidence dropped and with it the number of pitches he felt comfortable throwing.
“I felt like I was dragging my arm, so I wasn’t creating angle,’’ he said. “All my pitches were coming in flat. Nothing had depth on it. When I was going out to the mound, I had to rely on my two-seam and changeup – only two pitches. I wasn’t really throwing my four-seam, I wasn’t throwing my curveball a lot because I didn’t have any confidence in them. I couldn’t spot them up. They were kind of rolling in. They weren’t sharp. They didn’t have depth.
“Going out as a two-pitch pitcher in the big leagues is hard to do.’’
The only way that works is if you throw mid- to upper-90s with an extraordinary amount of movement on the ball and if you have a wicked out pitch. The only way that would work for Hendricks is if he found a suitable body donor. Max Scherzer, perhaps. It took him a second to realize he was never going to throw 95 mph.
So he kept working, and toward the end of the 2015 season, he began to find himself. He had a 3.03 ERA in September and October regular-season games, and opponents hit .174, which was .069 lower than his next-best month. It helped cut his season ERA to 3.95. He carried that over into last spring.
“My mechanics felt great,’’ he said. “I was on line. I was getting out front. I was creating angle on my fastball early in spring, so right from there, I was able to expand my game a little. I started using my four-seam since I had the angle. I started to throw my curveball because I could spot it up.
“Once you have those four pitches, now you can open up your game plan. You can move your fastball in and out, change speeds. It kind of all came together for me.’’
Using those four pitches to frustrate hitters to no end, he finished third in the Cy Young voting, thanks to a 16-8 record and a major-league-leading 2.13 ERA. A monster had been created. OK, a 6-3, 190-pound monster who still looked like he should be carrying a briefcase. If you hadn’t seen him do it, you wouldn’t have believed it. And even if you had seen him do it …
“If you see Hendricks in the street, the last thing you’re thinking is he’s a baseball player,’’ catcher Miguel Montero said. “You probably think he’s an engineer or a doctor. Guess what? He’s a great athlete. He’s a good golfer, as well.’’
So now what? Well, more of the same, please. And that’s the problem. Or at least the challenge.
“He set the bar really high, so if he goes out there this year and has a 3.00 ERA, it’s not that good a year?’’ Montero said. “No, it’s a great year. It’s just that people’s expectations have changed. He’ll be fine.’’
What Hendricks found toward the end of the 2015 season and carried into 2016 looks sustainable.
“He made some really big adjustments last year that obviously worked,’’ said Jon Lester, who finished one spot ahead of Hendricks in Cy Young balloting. “Now it’s a matter of, is the league going to adjust to him with them seeing him a couple of times? He’s a smart kid. He knows. He makes really good in-game adjustments. Sky’s the limit.’’
Perfect. Hendricks could pass for a doctoral candidate in astrophysics, too.