SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – In the early days of spring training, Cubs manager Joe Maddon made an observation about starting pitcher Kyle Hendricks.
“He looks like a different cat this year,” Maddon said.
On one hand, it’s been hard to tell. Hendricks has not been at his locker much before the team takes the field in the morning. He’s been off getting his work done.
“Getting ready for the year, man,” he said Sunday. “It’s time to work around here.”
So I put it to him: How are you a different cat?
“I think I’m just more myself,” the 28-year-old right-hander said. “Through the years, Joe and the front office have given me the luxury and always tell me just be myself. ‘Do you,’ and you don’t get that a lot of places. So it’s a luxury to have here.
“I think I’m finally just comfortable in being myself, doing my routine, knowing that what I do has the ability to work. So yeah, when you put the work in and see the results, it just makes you more confident to be yourself.”
Maddon expounded on his earlier observation.
“Again, with all of our guys, it seems that – this is our fourth year together, for the most part – they’re more comfortable in the exchanges,” he said. “We’re talking about the verbal exchanges. There’s not awkward pauses in conversation. Everybody’s at ease with everybody else. It really stands out with him to me that he’s very confident where he’s at now.
“He’s had two really good years in a row. He’s overcome some difficult moments during the season. The adjustments, he knows he can do that. He knows what it’s like to just nail it down and just run with it. He’s become a really solid major league starting pitcher, a really high-end guy with less than the velocity that everybody’s looking for. But his approach is spectacular. And he knows it. I guess he knows, ‘I belong here. I can do this.’ He’s all about winning.”
After a Cy Young-caliber season in 2016, when the Cubs won the World Series and he started Game 7, Hendricks last year went 7-5 with a 3.03 ERA. A finger ailment put him on the disabled list from early June to late July and limited him to 24 starts and only 1392/3 innings pitched. In four big-league seasons, Hendricks is 38-22 with a 2.94 ERA.
Although no Cubs pitcher reached 200 innings last year, Hendricks is eyeing that mark this season.
“I think so,” he said. “It’s just consistency, and obviously (not) being healthy last year was a one-time thing, hopefully. I feel really good where I’m at right now, and it’s always been a goal of mine to be that consistent guy – give the innings and get to that 200 number. It’s a big number for starters. It is a goal of mine. I know I can get there. It is just the health, taking it every day, putting my work in.”
Even though he’s now 28, Hendricks seems perpetually young, perhaps because he’s been on a pitching staff dominated by veterans such as Jon Lester, John Lackey and Jake Arrieta.
Lackey and Arrieta are gone, and Lester still is the veteran leader of the staff. The Opening Day starter still is to be determined. It could be that Lester or Hendricks starts Opening Day. Maddon went with Hendricks as the Game 1
starter in last year’s division series against Washington, and he responded with a victory, pitching seven shutout innings.
He also had the support of Lester.
“Oh, man, that means the world to me,” Hendricks said. “Jon is our guy. He’s our horse. He’s the face of the team, this staff. For him to say nice words like that about me is unbelievable. I grew up watching him when I was coming up through high school still, when he was young. To have a guy like that say that really means a lot to me.”
Hendricks is one of the many young veterans on the Cubs, a group that has played in three straight championship series.
Believe it or not, Hendricks has made 10 postseason starts, the most in franchise history. Six of those starts have been at Wrigley Field. No other pitcher has made more than three postseason starts at Wrigley Field.
Does he feel like a veteran now?
“I guess a little bit,” he said. “It is kind of weird. You’ve been here a couple years, and this core group, it feels like we are somewhat of a veteran. It’s hard to say that word because we still feel so young. But we have been around for a few years, kind of know the system, know Joe and the coaches. I guess we all feel very comfortable, and we know this is our team. I guess the camaraderie level just grows every year, and it makes it very, very comfortable to come into this clubhouse every day.”