Each new start pulls us further from a plausible argument that Kyle Hendricks is simply off to a slow start and can easily bounce back to elite form. I mean, sure, he has pitched two excellent games and can get things rolling in the right direction, but the bad games have been very bad and the inconsistency is an even bigger issue. An ace needs to be both dominant and dependable, but Hendricks has been neither to this point.
It seemed impossible that he could have come close to repeating his ignominious effort against the Braves at Wrigley when he allowed four homers in the 1st inning, yet Wednesday’s outing came close. This time it was only two homers, though he ended up allowing a career-high 11 hits and eventually surrendered a dinger to opposing pitcher Huascar Ynoa.
“It’s obviously a low point,” Hendricks told reporters after the game. “It’s a little bit of everything right now. Mentally, I was attacking, getting after it, tempo was better. Now just got to make better pitches. There are so many pitches over the middle of the plate that are flat right now.
“It’s kind of a perfect storm, just everything’s kind of off. Talking to Willy afterward, just not quite right. It’s just not me. I’ve got to simplify my mental approach and just get back to attacking at the bottom of the zone.”
Through 22.2 innings in five starts, Hendricks has already allowed as many home runs (10) and walked as many batters (8) as he did last year over 81.1 innings in 12 starts. And while it might look as though he’s striking out more batters when you see an 8.34 K/9 that is higher than any other season but 2015 (8.35), his 19.4% K-rate is lower than in any of the six previous seasons.
That comes from Hendricks generating swinging strikes at a mere 8.8% clip, his lowest in four years, and getting called strikes at a 25.2% percent rate that’s the lowest of his career. Then you place that in the context of a 67.6% first-strike rate that’s more than two points above his career average while he works in the zone 48.3% of the time. That latter figure is a full two points above his previous high and it’s five points greater than his average.
Hendricks isn’t the kind of pitcher who can beat hitters by constantly working in the zone, at least not right in the heart of it. That admitted failure to attack the bottom of the zone has his groundball rate at just 31.6% right now. He’s never been below 41.3% in any season and his average is 47.1% even with this year factored in. Fly balls are naturally up a little, but the big problem is a 10-point jump in line drives.
Opponents are hitting the ball hard and they’re hitting it in the air, not exactly a recipe for success.
You don’t even need to look at his 7.31 xERA or 8.29 FIP to know the 7.54 ERA isn’t the product of bad luck. Simply put, it’s bad pitching. That doesn’t mean Kyle Hendricks is a bad pitcher, full stop, only that he’s a bad pitcher right now. Even if you want the Cubs to conduct a fire sale by July 31, it’s not in anyone’s best interest to have the presumed staff ace performing like this.
Not only does it remove more of what precious little leverage the Cubs have at this point, it could eliminate a potential trade piece and it also throws their future plans further into question. And yes, those plans have long been in question and should definitely be questioned. Hendricks being traded doesn’t feel likely, though it’s possible if Tom Ricketts forces Jed Hoyer to hang an “EVERYTHING MUST GO” sign on the office door.
The flip side is that Hendricks should be one of the few remaining anchors from the current roster to conceivably carry forward through a re[newing season tickets will continue to be a major issue no matter how you finish the word]. With a guarantee that runs through 2023 at an average of $13.9 million and a $16 million vesting/club option for ’24, Hendricks would still be affordable even as other pitchers come in to take over the top of the rotation.
No matter how you want to see this thing go, though, the simple fact is that Hendricks has to be better. And I don’t just mean because he can’t really be worse than what we’ve seen at points this season, I mean he must be better for the sake of everyone involved. Call that being an armchair meatball fan if you like, but I think Hendricks would agree.
“This is really bad right now,” he said Thursday.
The good news is that it can probably only get better, especially with his next start coming against the…Dodgers. Oh.