We tend to get excited about hard-throwing prospects. Cubs fans are already salivating at the thought of drafting one of two hard-throwing pitchers -- Mark Appel or Jonathan Gray. And that is with good reason. The ability to throw hard simply gives you more margin for error. You miss your spots and you can often get away with it because hitters can't always catch up to your mistakes.
That is not the case with 23 year old RHP Kyle Hendricks. He doesn't have that kind of margin for error, so his game depends on deception and command -- and stuff that is just good enough to make it all work.
You may remember Hendricks as the "second player the Cubs acquired when they traded veteran SP Ryan Dempster to the Texas Rangers. 3B Christian Villanueva, then a top 10 prospect with the Rangers, was the centerpiece.
But GM Jon Daniels admitted at the time that the Cubs chose wisely and picked up 2 sleepers that they were hoping they didn't have to give up. At the time of the trade, Hendricks was just 5-8 but sported an ERA of 2.82 (2.76 FIP). He walked an incredibly low 1.03 batters per 9 innings while striking out a respectable 7.71. He keeps the ball down, allowing just 0.55 HRs/9 IP. In other words, he doesn't beat himself on the mound.
So far this year, Hendricks hasn't missed a beat after making the big jump to AA. He's 5-2 with a 2.47 ERA (2.72 FIP) and his walk rate is still good at 2.01. The increase is more of a reflection of facing better quality hitters than any lapse in control. His HR/9 IP rate has gone down to a rate of 0.31
So what kind of stuff does Hendricks have and what kind of pitcher is he?
He'll throw his fastball 87-90 mph, though I have read a report that he has hit as high as 94 mph.
Whatever the radar readings, Hendricks' game isn't about velocity. He's a cerebral pitcher (he attended Ivy League Dartmouth) who has a feel for pitching. He has a vast repertoire that he commands well. It includes a fastball (both 4-seam and 2 seam), a cutter, a curve, and what is probably his best pitch -- a changeup.
But it's that feel that makes it all work. It's one thing to know how to throw all these pitches, its quite another to know how to use them and, just as importantly, how to sell them. Off of Hendrick's delivery, you'd be hard-pressed to figure out which pitch is coming out of his hand.
That may seem like a little thing, but I've watched pitchers where I could call the pitch as it left their hand. That gives the hitter a big advantage that can negate some of that pure velocity, much like a bad jump on the bases or in the outfield can negate a player's speed. Hendricks does not give hitters that advantage, so it helps play up his stuff.
Another asset Hendricks brings to the table is great command of all those pitches. He can locate everything in his repertoire and that gives him another advantage when it comes to setting up hitters and changing planes so that hitters don't get comfortable. It also helps him pound the lower part of the strike zone and keep the ball in the park.
Lastly, Hendricks simply knows how to pitch. His best pitch, his changeup, gives him the ability to change speeds and play up his fringy to average fastball. He also developed his latest pitch, his cutter, with a purpose.
“I just started throwing a cutter and it’s been a big part of the repertoire lately,” Hendricks said. “If I fall behind in the count or something, I use it as a contact pitch to get out of the count and go to the next hitter.”
Hendricks approach on the mound is well beyond his years and to this point, his knowledge, feel, and ability to command pitches and change speeds has overwhelmed hitters at the AA level.
The tests will continue to get tougher, the command will have to get more precise as he faces better hitters. That already small margin for error will continue to shrink.
But Hendricks has been up to all challenges so far. He has made the big jumps from the Ivy League to short-season ball to advanced A ball to AA and has adapted, adjusted, and continued to improve his command and knowledge of pitching.
It may not be long before he gets the opportunity to match wits with MLB hitters.