Remember when Samardzija and Hammel were traded to Oakland and there was some doubt surrounding the Cubs newly vacated starting rotation? That seems like a long time ago now, doesn't it? The Cubs are proving that yes, in some cases, prospects don't always pan out the way you had expected - but in the case of Kyle Hendricks, they do.
Hendricks was on the hill Friday night for his fourth major league start with the Cubs at Dodger Stadium near his hometown of Newport Beach, to take on Yasiel Puig, Dee Gordon and the Los Angeles Dodgers, who were on a six game winning streak before last night. Hendricks faced off against Dodgers RHP Dan Haren who currently holds a 4.76 ERA on the season and while Haren lasted only 4.1 innings against the Cubs, allowing 6 earned runs off of 8 hits, Hendricks outdueled him to say the least. Hendricks pitched a beautiful 7 innings, allowing just 4 hits and 1 earned run against the Dodgers lineup of All-Star hitters, looking sharp and level as ever and showing no signs of fatigue as his reason for being pulled in the 7th. Yet another quality start in the books for Hendricks, not to mention that Hendricks also picked up his first two major league hits in last night's game as well.
Hendricks has now improved to a 2-1 record with a 2.05 ERA in his 4 starts with the Cubs. Looking back on his outings, he has been nothing but impressive except for a small troublesome stint in the first few innings of his debut at Great American Ball Park. In that start, he allowed 4 earned runs on 5 hits, three of those runs coming in the first inning, before exiting in the 6th. But that in itself was minuscule, should this be the only flaw that Cubs fans are able to find thus far in Hendrick's first four major league starts - I'd say that's a pretty promising future.
In his next start on July 22nd at home against the San Diego Padres, Hendricks threw just 83 pitches, allowing 5 hits and no runs scored in 7 innings to lead the Cubs to a 6-0 shut out victory. His next start again, came at home, facing an age old rivalry at it's finest - placing him on the mound against the St. Louis Cardinals matched up with their famed starting pitcher Adam Wainwright. That should be enough to rattle any pitcher for the Cubs, yet Hendricks kept his cool. Despite the Cubs inability to provide Hendricks with run support on the afternoon, leading to his first career loss, his performance was very kempt. He needed just 94 pitches (57 for strikes), while pitching on just four days of rest.
Hendricks is certainly running a very persuasive campaign to keep his position in the starting rotation. In a rotation that now is comprised of a pair of struggling pitchers in Edwin Jackson and Travis Wood, nights that are slated for Hendricks and Arrieta starts are a breath of fresh air. One of the greatest assets to Hendricks that can be more vital than most may realize is his composure. He is a pitcher that tends to relay more on his intellect and ability to read hitters at the plate than his velocity. Though Hendricks throws his fastball mainly between 82-91MPH (he had been known to throw in the mid-90s in the minors on occasion), he is extremely effective, which can at times be more of an asset than being able to throw a fastball at 95+MPH. His control is impeccable, though he struggled with it in the beginning of his first outing, he was immediately back to the form and control that he has been known for throughout his minor league career. Hendricks is able to locate his fastball effectively in the zone, which will essentially help keep his number of home runs allowed down, and has an extremely effective change-up that he is able to use to keep hitters off of his fastball. He has most recently added a cutter to his repertoire, which he is able to use should he fall behind in the count.
One thing that I think most baseball fans can agree on is that not having to throw your fastball with max effort can end up being be a very good thing as the Cubs look long term into the future. The baseball world has hit extremely hard in the 2014 season by the "Tommy John Epidemic". Though there are many theories on what causes the devastating elbow injury, it's just common sense that if you throw as hard as some pitchers in the majors do as a starter, you're more than likely to cause severe injury to your UCL somewhere down the line. Again, this is another reason why Hendricks ability to pitch based on intellect, instinct and finesse while maintaining low pitch counts is something that should be praised by Cubs fans, and searched for more often in pitchers around the league. Hendricks may never become a top of the rotation starter, but that doesn't mean that he can't be an extremely effective 3-4 starter in the Cubs rotation. Consistency is something that is often overshadowed by pitchers who throw hard and have high velocity, but those pitchers can tend to be higher risk than the steady Kyle Hendricks.
The future looks very promising for this young starter, who may end up becoming more and more of an enigma to hitters around the league as he continues to pitch in the majors. The more comfortable he becomes in the show, the more threatening he potentially will become. Keep watching him, North Siders, because it looks like he is just getting started.