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A sleeper who woke up: Kyle Hendricks, RHP, Chicago Cubs

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Despite lacking a hot fastball, Kyle Hendricks of the Chicago Cubs has a consistent track record of success due to his superior command.

Kyle Hendricks
Kyle Hendricks
Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

Kyle Hendricks of the Chicago Cubs was a bright spot for the Wrigleyites this summer. In his first 13 major league starts, Hendricks went 7-2, 2.46 in 80 innings, with 72 hits allowed and a 47/15 K/BB. His FIP was higher than the ERA but still solid at 3.32, and he collected 1.5 fWAR in a little over one-third of season.

Despite his unquestioned success and a strong minor league track record, Hendricks doesn't excite most scouts and it is easy to understand why: his typical fastball isn't much faster than some change-ups. Yet he keeps pitching well, the hitters keep not-figuring him out, and he keeps not failing.

Hendricks was an eighth round pick in 2011 out of Dartmouth. He was effective in college, posting a 2.47 ERA with a 70/11 K/BB in 62 innings, and was clocked as high as 94 MPH. However, Ivy League pitchers usually don't go high on the draft day, and Hendrick's spot in the middle rounds was viewed as very credible. The Rangers used him in the bullpen at Spokane in the Northwest League with fine results (1.93 ERA, 36/4 K/BB in 33 innings) and gave him one spot start at Double-A Frisco. The report filed for 2012:

Hendricks was drafted in the eighth round last year, out of Dartmouth. He looked good in the bullpen at short-season Spokane, then got the call to Double-A when Frisco needed someone to start the last game of the season. He acquitted himself fairly well in that outing. Hendricks runs his fastball up to 94 MPH, mixing in a slider, curve, and changeup. He throws strikes and has a sense on how to pitch, and looks like a sleeper prospect to me. The main criticism is that his fastball lacks movement, but his other pitches help make up for that. Grade C but keep an eye on him.

Hendricks returned to starting with High-A Myrtle Beach in 2012 and was outstanding, posting a 2.82 ERA with a spectacular 112/15 K/BB in 131 innings. However, scouting reports actually took a peg downward: his fastball was 87-90, topping out at 92 at his best. and none of his secondaries rated as plus.

The Rangers flipped him to the Cubs in the Ryan Dempster deal, prompting this report entering 2013:

Were the Rangers selling high, or do the Cubs have something special here? Hendricks threw up to 94 MPH when used in the bullpen in 2011, but as a starter he’s more in the 88-92 range. His command is excellent and he has a full assortment of secondary pitches, using a curveball, traditional slider, cutter, and changeup. None of his pitches are plus offerings, but hell, he’s got five of them, and he throws strikes. That’s enough to make short work of A-ball. We need to see him at higher levels, but Hendricks could end up being a useful four/five starter. He could also return to the bullpen, where his diverse arsenal and superior command could give hitters fits in short doses. Grade C+

2013 was more of the same: outstanding work for Double-A Tennessee (1.85 ERA, 101/26 K/BB in 126 innings) and Triple-A Iowa (2.47 ERA, 27/8 in 40 innings). The fact that he remained effective against advanced pitching boosted his stock with observers, although there was still some skepticism, especially since his fastball actually seemed to lose a little more velocity, down to 85 at times. The report entering 2014:

As you can see, he has been extremely effective in the minors and finished ’13 with a strong run of pitching for Triple-A Iowa, positioning himself for a major league trial some time in 2014. Despite his statistical success, he doesn’t show up on top prospect lists due to a non- fast fastball: he works at 87-92 MPH. His command is obviously strong, and he mixes the fastball with a cutter/slider, curveball, and changeup. He’s quite deceptive, changes speeds well, and keeps the ball down, generating grounders. While he’s more of a fourth/fifth starter type than a future ace, I like his feel for pitching enough to go with a Grade B-.

Hendricks kept pitching well for the Iowa Cubs in 2014 (10-5, 3.59 ERA, 97/23 K/BB in 103 innings, remember that's the Pacific Coast League). And, as noted, major league hitters haven't solved him yet.

Okay, so what do we make of this?

Hendrick's PITCHf/x report is fascinating: he can get his four-seamer up to 92 at his best, but relies mainly on a sinker around 88 and as low as 82. He has the change-up and the curve and the cutter, and occasionally tosses a pitch that the system identifies as a slider.

BrooksBaseball has a Beta feature that describes a pitcher's stuff in everyday language and the report for Hendricks is worth quoting:

His sinker has surprisingly little armside run, has below average velo, results in somewhat more groundballs compared to other pitchers' sinkers and has some natural sinking action. His change has surprising cut action, has below average velo and results in somewhat more flyballs compared to other pitchers' changeups. His cutter results in somewhat more groundballs compared to other pitchers' cutters, has slightly below average velo and has some natural sink. His curve has little depth. His fourseam fastball generates an extremely high number of swings & misses compared to other pitchers' fourseamers, is a real worm killer that generates an extreme number of groundballs compared to other pitchers' fourseamers, has much less armside movement than typical, has below average velo and has some natural sinking action.

Then we have this summary from Jeff Zimmerman at Fangraphs in early September:

*Man he throws slow. He has one huge set of balls to keep throwing his fastball in their (sic), which he does with confidence. His sinker was 86-87 in the game I watched. He just isn’t going to strikeout many batters as seen by his 15% K%.

* He seemed to get by on two traits, he threw strikes (5.4 BB%) and lived throwing to the U-shaped zone on the edge of the strikezone. With the borderline strikes, he was able to generate weak contact. This can be seen by his 49% GB% and .246 BABIP.

* As for his other pitchers, a curveball and change, they weren’t good in the game. His change has been good this season with a 15% SwStr% and a 48% GB%. Both are above average. His curve has acceptable swing and miss (9.5%), but has a great GB% (57%).

That's a pretty non-enthusiastic report from Zimmerman, and it came from a game where Hendricks allowed two runs in six innings against the St. Louis Cardinals, fanning three with one walk.

So what do we know?

***Neither the objective nor the subjective reports on Hendricks' stuff scream "ace." He has the pure stuff of a fifth starter or long reliever.

***Despite this, his statistical track record is consistent and outstanding, including strong performances in difficult environments like the Pacific Coast League and, so far, in the majors.

***He doesn't strike a bushel of people out, but hardly walks anyone, keeps the ball down, doesn't give up a bunch of home runs, and has ice water running through his veins. That's a recipe for success.

While we should not expect a 2.47 ERA every year, if Hendricks remains healthy I don't see why he can't be an effective number three or four starter going forward. I'd like more strikeouts on the big league resume, but I wouldn't put it past him to make some adjustments and give us those eventually.

Kyle Hendricks

Kyle Hendricks, photo by Brian D. Kersey, Getty Images