A little less than 30 years since the debut of a skinny 20 year old RHP named Greg Maddux made his debut, it seems Cubs fans are hopeful for a second coming in the form of 24 year old Kyle Hendricks, another pitcher with good command and a cerebral approach.
That has brought about a rather polarizing debate.
One side says, "If Maddux could succeed, then so can Hendricks!"
The other side says, "Sacrilege! Maddux was a Hall-of-Famer! He had great stuff! He threw harder!"
I say you're both right and you're both wrong. I say things aren't always so black and white. I say you both have points and you both take some liberties in your argument.
But let's get one thing out of the way first. I think it is fair for someone to say that Hendricks' command and cerebral approach on the mound reminds them of Maddux.
Why wouldn't it?
Where we draw the line is that it necessarily means they are also similar elsewhere in terms of things like stuff and athleticism. They are not.
I also draw the line when people overreact and say, "How dare you compare the two!" I think those people need to chill out. Someone can say Hendrick's cerebral approach and fine command reminds them of Maddux and it doesn't necessarily mean they think he will one day be anywhere near as good. Those are two different things.
Then there is the stuff/velo argument and this is where things really start to diverge. Sometimes one side will bring down Maddux as purely a finesse guy with fringy stuff who got by on his wits. So the argument that follows is, "Well if he was able to pull it off, then Hendricks should too". That is an inaccurate and unfair portrayal of Maddux early in his career.
The other side says Maddux stuff was better and he threw low 90s (I even heard 95 a few times) when he was younger. I agree with the first part, but some liberties are being taken with the second. I know that Maddux himself talked about how he used to throw mid 90s when he was young, but Hendricks hit 95 according to his manager (or at least 93 according to scouts). Being able to hit something and throw it consistently are two different things. Both early Maddux and Hendricks can reach back and throw at least in the low 90s with their 4-seam fastball, but neither is that kind of pitcher, so I think the velocity aspect of this argument is overblown. I'm throwing that out as I think the pro-Maddux crowd took some liberties there. Maddux could throw in the low 90s, but he really didn't do it all that often.
Here are excerpts from two scouting reports, one of early Maddux and the other is of Hendricks. I will leave out the names and let you decide who is who.
He mostly pitches in the 85-92 mph range, reading hitters’ swings and disrupting their timing.
He throws his changeup to all hitters and has shown the ability to pitch to the inside and outside corners and down with both his fastball and change. He throws both a slider and a curve, both fringe-average, and most scouts prefer the curve, which he throws with some power in the upper 70s. Some scouts give him 70 control grades.
He has a fringe-average fastball in the 87-91 mph range. He’s dominated hitters in the minors due to above-average control and command of his four-pitch repertoire (fastball, curveball, cutter, changeup).
Although his fastball lacks premium velocity, he did a nice job of changing speeds and mixing his pitches. He used his heater to get ahead in the pitch count and then mixed in his other three offerings.
He throws 86-89 consistently with very good movement. His movement isn’t a gradual tailing type but (instead has) a quick, bat-breaking kink. He has a big league CB right now although he needs to be a little more consistent with it. He threw a couple this day that were 79 mph, tight, down-breaking, well-located pitches.
(At Iowa) 88 mph fastball tails when up, sinks when down. Pitches inside very well and (has) good command. Good curveball but needs more consistent bite. Change only fair and doesn't have good command of it. Needs 1 more year to work on curve and change, but very good potential to be a consistent winning starter.
Okay, some of you may have astutely guessed that Hendricks is pitcher A and "early" Maddux is pitcher B but the point here is...where is that velo difference? They both sit/sat most comfortably in the high 80s. We also see that they are similar in terms of their approach and command.
But there is a key difference here: Notice how the Maddux report focuses on his pure stuff while Hendricks' report talks about how he depends on mixing and matching. Both had/have cerebral approaches but Hendricks is more dependent on it to succeed.
The biggest differences are the movement on the fastball, the much higher regard for Maddux's curve and (in a part I left out so as not to give it away too easily), his superior athleticism. We talk about athleticism a lot here when it comes to pitchers and the reason is that athletic pitchers can repeat their deliveries better and thus very often develop better command. Hendricks, however, compensates to some degree for his relative lack of athleticism with a very simple delivery that is easy for him to repeat -- and thus far it has enough deception to where it isn't too easy for hitters to pick him up.
So what we have here is that the Maddux throng has it partially right. Yes, he has better stuff, but no, he did not throw harder. He did, however, have a better fastball because it had much more movement - one with quicker break on two different planes. That is enough to make it a plus pitch despite the lack of velo. Again, Hendricks has had to compensate. He has made up for his relative lack of movement by developing a cutter, which costs him some velocity (mid 80s). So even if we generously equate his cut fastball to Maddux's everyday fastball in terms of movement, we can now in effect say that Maddux had more velocity. The difference here is significant. No matter how you try to finesse it in favor of Hendricks, Maddux clearly had the better fastball.
When we look deeper and compare/contrast early Maddux with early Hendricks there is enough to make one a top of the rotation starter and other more of a #4 type.
#1 starters are defined by scouts as pitchers with two plus pitches, an average 3rd pitch and plus-plus command. Early Maddux meets this criteria because of that curve and because we consider his fastball plus because of it's movement. He would add, adapt, and/or improve his repertoire as he gained experience, but we are talking early to prime Maddux for this particular piece.
Hendricks does not really have an out pitch. His change has plus potential but it is not quite there yet on a consistent basis, It is getting there, however. At any rate, he will not have a second plus pitch barring a drastic change. He more aptly fits the 4/5 description which is command of at least two major league pitches, average velocity. and a consistent breaking ball. He is not an exact fit, of course. Few pitchers are because these are general guidelines, but there is enough give and take where it balances out. He has a potential plus change, but fringe velocity. He has the potential for plus-plus command but that is mitigated by the lack of a consistent breaking pitch, which is only fringe average to begin with. He does some things better than your average 4/5 starter, but there are also things he doesn't do as well. You really have to stretch the imagination to make him a mid-rotation starter, much less a top of the rotation type arm.
But Hendricks fans, take heart. There were also some doubts about Maddux, as in this report. There are also enough similarities in terms of positives where Hendricks can at least be an effective MLB starter for years to come. They both have good command, cerebral approaches and are more pitch to contact types than they are guys who rear back and overpower hitters. There are also significant differences in terms of the quality of their stuff. When we take everything into account, Hendricks isn't Maddux, but he doesn't have to be to be effective or for us to enjoy his artistry on the mound. Let Maddux be Maddux and let Hendricks be Hendricks.