MESA, Ariz. -- After a day of meetings, on-field drills and other obligations was complete earlier this week, Cubs manager David Ross decided to squeeze in a workout in the afternoon. That is when he spotted pitcher Kyle Hendricks with a bat in hand, heading to the cage.
Ross loved it.
"I was like, 'That's what I'm talking about. You looking for a pinch-hit role?'" Ross said with a laugh on Friday. "He's like, 'I'm all in.'"
Hendricks has been the Cubs' rotation metronome over the past few years. Yu Darvish was the most dominant starter down the stretch last year and Jon Lester is the unquestioned leader of the starting staff. But, more than anyone else in the rotation, Hendricks has been a predictable source of steady production.
Even so, Hendricks was not satisfied with his performance last season or with how he felt physically by the time Chicago's campaign concluded without a postseason appearance. Over the winter, Hendricks sought the help of a new trainer in specialist Eric Cressey, who was hired by the Yankees in January to be their new director of player health and performance.
"I didn't like the trend I was going the last two years or so," Hendricks said.
All Hendricks did last year was lead all qualified National League starters with a 10.4 percent home run-to-flyball ratio during a season that saw piles of new power records. Among NL starters, his 4.4 percent walk rate was the third-lowest mark, his 4.1 WAR (per Fangraphs) ranked 11th and the 3.46 ERA he spun ranked 13th.
So, what was the issue?
At the top of the list was the feeling of fatigue setting in late in 2019 and having his campaign stalled for a few weeks in June due to a right shoulder issue. That cost him starts and a chance at reaching his annual, yet still elusive, goal of 200 innings. Hendricks felt that instability in his lower half was causing a negative chain reaction that impacted his mechanics, and potentially the health of his arm.
Under Cressey's guidance, combined with input from the Cubs' staff, Hendricks focused on strengthening his legs and targeting different muscles around the shoulder and back in workouts. The idea is to be under better control when he is balanced over the pitching rubber, leading to a more fluid and consistent delivery.
"It's an overall different strength program kind of," Hendricks said. "A lot more new school kind of stuff. A lot more movement stuff and becoming more athletic. So, not just stuff in the weight room to get me ready to go pitch on the mound, but movement stuff so I feel better moving around the mound, too. It's just made my whole mechanics flow better and not just get so pushy with it."
The 30-year-old Hendricks also moved his throwing program up over the winter months, because he wanted to use Spring Training in a different way this year. He wants to use the preseason to focus on more than just a strengthening build-up for Opening Day.
"I'm trying to come into spring really ready to go," Hendricks said, "and take advantage of all this time also just to get better, and not just trying to get ready for Game 1."
Ross was one of Hendricks' catchers during the righty's stellar 2016 season, when the pitcher won 16 games, won an ERA title (2.13) and finished third in NL Cy Young voting. Knowing Hendricks as well as he does, Ross was not surprised to learn of the pitcher's revamped routine over the offseason.
"He sets the right example," Ross said. "He's unemotional in every aspect of his game. Good or bad, you'd never know how his last start was. He comes in, and he's a worker. He prepares the right way and goes out and gives you his best effort. I feel like he's one of the guys you've got to worry about least. You know what you're going to get out of him and he sets one of the best tones.
"He looks phenomenal. He looks really strong. I know he went with a different offseason program this year for him, trying to improve, trying to continue to get better, which is always a positive from a manager's standpoint."