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Prospect Retrospective: Kyle Hendricks, RHP, Chicago Cubs

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The Cubs right-hander shows that radar gun readings aren’t everything

Chicago Cubs v Philadelphia Phillies Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

Tonight the Chicago Cubs will send right-handed pitcher Kyle Hendricks to the mound against the Washington Nationals in the decisive Game Five of the 2017 National League Division Series. Hendricks was an unusual case as a prospect; that’s our remit here at Minor League ball, so let’s review his background.

The Texas Rangers drafted Hendricks out of Dartmouth in 2011 as an eighth rounder. He was immediately successful in the bullpen in the Northwest League (1.93 ERA in 33 innings) and made a late start in Double-A. I put him in the 2012 Baseball Prospect Book with the following comment:

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.

Texas moved him into a starting role in 2012 and he was excellent, posting a 2.82 ERA in 131 innings in High-A with a ridiculous 112/15 K/BB. He then went to Chicago in the Ryan Dempster deal. Here's the report entering 2013:

The Texas Rangers drafted Hendricks in the eighth round in 2011, out of Dartmouth. He was having an excellent season for High-A Myrtle Beach, and then was traded to the Cubs in the Ryan Dempster deal. 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+.

Hendricks continued dominating hitters in Double-A (1.85 ERA in 126 innings) and Triple-A (2.48 in 40 innings), posting a combined 128/33 K/BB. Here's the report entering 2014:

An eighth round pick out of Dartmouth by the Texas Rangers in 2011, Hendricks was traded to the Cubs in the 2012 Ryan Dempster deal. 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 nonfast 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-.

As you know, Hendricks came up in 2014 and was excellent over half a season (2.46 in 80 innings, 47/15 K/BB, 1.5 fWAR). He held his job in 2015 (3.95, 167/3 K/BB in 180 innings, 3.4 fWAR) then was one of the best pitchers in baseball in 2016 (16-8, 2.13 league-leading ERA, 170/44 K/BB in 190 innings, 4.5 fWAR). Hendricks fell back a bit this year while working through a hand injury (3.03 ERA in 140 innings, 123/40 K/BB, 2.5 fWAR) although he was still an above-average pitcher.

Kyle Hendricks

Overall he’s thrown 590 major league innings, with 11.8 fWAR, 38-22 record, 2.94 ERA, 138 ERA+, 507/142 K/BB. That’s quite good for anyone, especially a guy who wasn’t rated as a top prospect due to lack of velocity. I was among the optimists with the Grade B- and even that proved to be too low.

His peak velocity has actually declined a little since he was drafted. He touched 94 regularly in college but hasn’t done that often as a pro. The tradeoff is better movement: it is interesting to read the early concern about his fastball being too straight. And of course his full arsenal of secondary pitches helps everything play up.

Here’s Hendricks’ Fangraphs velocity chart. Note the downward velocity trend, although he rebounded a bit after returning from the injury.

Kyle Hendricks’ Fangraphs velocity chart

Hendricks will always rely on changing speeds, command, feel, and having a good defense behind him. His margin for error will never be great, but he is a good reminder that you can’t judge a pitcher just from his radar gun readings.