Pitchers like Kyle Hendricks can take time to appreciate. He doesn't have the kind of stuff that wows scouts. There is no mid 90s fastball, no wipeout slider, no knee-buckling curve. In fact, Hendricks once admitted himself that neither his curve or slider were very good, but as usual he has found a way to adapt.
Hitters probably feel pretty comfortable at the plate because Hendricks is not going to physically intimidate them. Yet when the game is over they often finding themselves scratching their heads and wondering how they went 0 for 4.
So how does he do it?
Hendricks is the thinking man's pitcher. He has that intangible quality referred to as pitchability. He has a plan up there on the mound and the command to pull it off. The temptation is to compare him to Greg Maddux, but I think that's unfair. Maddux had better stuff than his reputation sometimes suggests. He was much more highly regarded as both an amateur and a prospect. It's not surprising, however, that Maddux is Hendricks' idol, though he admits his game doesn't resemble that of the Hall of Famer. But he is striving to get there.
To listen to Hendricks speak, you can see why Jason McLeod and Chris Bosio are high on him. He practices what the Cubs preach, starting with developing a routine to do his best ensure to consistency,
"It's just been my five-day routine, sticking to it and doing the same thing every five days. I've had a great feel every time out on the mound and just kinda been in a groove and trying to keep it going...You just have to come to the ballpark every day and focus on what you have to do."
As far as his stuff goes, it has improved. The fastball isn't overpowering but Hendricks sets up the 2-seamer well and it's effectiveness is enhanced with good downward plane and his ability to locate it down in the zone. He can dial it up a little more if he has to but he also realizes it's best for him to use it wisely and conserve stamina. Here is an excerpt from his interview with Aerys Sports,
Well I throw mostly a two-seam fastball, so my two-seam sits at like 89-91. If I’m trying to blow one by a guy I can go upstairs near eye level and throw a four-seam and max out at a 93-94. Right now it would be nice to get that up obviously but it’s a lot harder then it sounds. Just getting stronger and being able to throw harder. I have been working out and working out hard all off-season. Sometimes I don’t need velocity-games. I need stamina-games where I’m stronger at the end of the game. I want to be able to throw a the same velocity in the 8th inning that I was in the 1st inning.
The change-up had always been his best pitch and typically that's a weapon against opposite handed hitters. But Hendricks struggled a bit against lefties, though he did make an adjustment and improved at the end of the year at Iowa.
Part of that improvement has to do with a "new" pitch. He recently morphed his curve and slider into a "slurve" (which he still sometimes calls a curve) and it has been more effective than either of the two breaking balls were on their own. He's more confident with the combo pitch and it has become a weapon for him against lefty hitters.
" I made a lot of progress in the one month I was in Triple A with Mike Mason, the pitching coach. He started making me use my curve ball early in the count to lefties, like back dooring it. Just flipping it up there and I noticed a lot of time that they would just take it, so I started implementing that into my routine. Basically just trying to go after good left handed hitters. I saw a lot more success."
He did lose a pitch to his repertoire so he added a new one last year as well. He cuts his fastball and while it isn't a swing and miss, he can locate it well and it has just enough movement to where hitters can't quite square it up,
“I just started throwing a cutter and it’s been a big part of the repertoire lately, 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.”
So while Hendricks doesn't have that one "wow" pitch, he has four pitches in which he feels pretty confident. So consistency, improved stuff, and plus command contributed a great deal to his success, but there is one more weapon in Hendricks' arsenal -- his mind. Hendricks has that in common with Maddux, They both throw every pitch with a purpose.
Hendricks intelligent approach allowed him to adjust to pitching in one of the Southern League's most hitter friendly parks. Of course, Hendricks was well aware of that fact and pitched accordingly,
"The biggest thing if you're pitching in a small park, the one thing you can dictate is keeping the ball out of the air," he said. "If you can get a two-seam fastball going and keep it down and on the ground that's the biggest asset you can have. I'm definitely a ground-ball pitcher. I shoot for early outs and early ground balls and early contact to keep the pitch count down and keep my fielders on [their] toes."
"You have to establish the fastball inside, but when it comes down to crucial points of the game you try to make a guy beat you to the opposite field. You're not going to give them a cookie and let them pull it, especially at Smokies Park, where you can get it out down the line even if you're not a power hitter."
Wrigley plays a little different than Smokies Park in that it plays short in the alleys but the wells make it play like a big park down the lines. I'm sure we can expect Hendricks to plan ahead and adapt accordingly.
That's kind of what he does.
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