Kyle Hendricks Has Earned Staff Ace Title Even If He Won’t Acknowledge It

If the Cubs are looking for something fun to replace the defunct annual bunting contest, perhaps they could have an aw-shucks-off to see which of their current stars is the most humble. Though Alec Mills would be a dark horse and Kris Bryant is a strong No. 2 seed, my money is on Kyle Hendricks. The same is true for his Cy Young candidacy, literally.

Hendricks is clearly the ace of an overhauled staff, but good luck getting him to admit that he even slots in at the top of the rotation.

“It’s hard to look back at all that right now,” he said during a Wednesday Zoom call. I’ve always been someone trying to work as hard as I can and never stop,” he said. “I don’t really know where my [spot] is at the top. So I just want to keep going, try and be as good as I can be, get the most out of my career.”

Just as projection systems and oddsmakers underrate Hendricks because it’s almost impossible to quantify how he does what he does, those who haven’t really followed his career probably don’t understand how hard he works. They see a beanpole-looking dude whose fastball wouldn’t break their grandmother’s bone china and assume he spends the offseason riding his Peloton and maybe curling the occasional neoprene coated dumbbell.

Real ones know, however, that Hendricks has stepped up his workout game over the years, incorporating yoga for increased mobility and working with performance guru Eric Cressey on a specialized strength and conditioning routine. The result is a pitcher was able to buck the trend of the start-stop-start 2020 season to throw a complete game shutout on Opening Day before going on to average a career-high 6.78 innings per start.

Hendricks had averaged 5.95 innings per start over the previous six seasons, topped by a 6.27 inning average in 2016. Perhaps more telling is that MLB starters as a whole averaged only 4.78 innings per start in 2020 after being at 5.18 in 2019 and 5.36 in 2018. We don’t know how that trend will fare this coming season, but the prevailing thought is that it could dip again as teams work carefully to stretch starters back out.

Whatever happens with the rest of the league, the Cubs’ ace is planning to defy convention yet again.

“I put in a ton of work this offseason; I want to be ready and make my start every fifth day. That’s who I’ve always been. I put in the work last year as well during quarantine — I was coming out and throwing innings to our own guys and stuff. My innings load was actually a little higher than the numbers would say, but I’ve positioned myself well.

“I think I’m ready to take on a full load again. I know what it’s like to go through a full season, so I can lean on that experience. I just want to be there, be that consistent force for these guys, take the ball every fifth day and they know what they can get out of me.”

More than just eating innings, Hendricks’ ascension to the top of the rotation conveys a slate of ceremonial responsibilities. Though not as formal as Optimus Prime handing over the Autobot Matrix of Leadership to Hot Rod — my apologies if that’s a little too 80’s kid for you — Hendricks will now be the one expected to set an example for the rest of the staff, especially those young pitchers who should finally be coming up in greater numbers.

Jake Arrieta will no doubt shoulder some of that load as the old hoss coming back around to play a supporting role. But while he’s certainly got the swagger and his highlight reel is the kind of thing that could have played in Times Square theaters before Rudy Giuliani put the kibosh on the seedy element, this is no longer Arrieta’s team.

“The great thing about Kyle is he was around Jake in his prime and around Jon Lester in the championship run and has grown from being around those guys,” David Ross told reporters. “So a lot of the qualities that we’ll be missing in Jon and we were missing last year in Jake that we get back, Kyle has taken on a lot of that.”

The Cubs need to extract incremental value from several small leverage points here and there if they expect to be competitive in 2021, no mean feat when considering the reduced budget. So even though having Hendricks as a steadying force at the top of the rotation doesn’t alleviate all of those complications, it does make them a helluva lot easier to address.

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