Ready to roll in '24, Hendricks 'back to who I wanted to be'

February 19th, 2024

MESA, Ariz. -- flashed a smile as he stood on the Field 1 mound at the Cubs’ complex on Saturday morning and readied the first pitch of a live batting practice session. A year ago at this time, it was fair to wonder what the future looked like for Chicago's revered veteran pitcher.

Hendricks silenced any talk about a fading career last season, when he returned from a worrisome shoulder injury and looked very much like himself again. Now, the righty is looking to build off his solid comeback campaign, while still providing the kind of quiet leadership that has never been questioned.

“I'm still executing my pitches, but my stuff is increasing,” Hendricks said on Sunday. “It's just a great feeling confidence-wise to know you're on the right path, doing the right things, and there's no end in sight, necessarily.”

Cubs pitching coach Tommy Hottovy monitored Hendricks’ live BP workout on Saturday and noted that he was sitting around 86-88 mph with his fastballs. For Hendricks, who has made a career out of precision and perplexity, that was a positive sign at this early stage of Spring Training.

Hendricks did not even throw his first bullpen session of the spring until Feb. 24 last year, while working his way back from a capsular tear in his throwing shoulder. The injury cut his ‘22 tour short, and the Cubs wanted to make the most of the rehab runway back to the mound. Once cleared to throw, Hendricks altered his arm path and tweaked his strength training regimen.

“We were building a schedule to get him back, not just to be a healthy version,” Hottovy said, “but a better version.”

Hendricks returned to the Cubs’ rotation in late May, and the payoff of the rehab strategy was quickly on full display. In his fourth start back for the North Siders on June 10, the right-hander flirted with a no-hitter on the road against the Giants, ending with eight shutout innings and only one hit relinquished.

“My arm felt completely normal again,” Hendricks said. “I felt like myself again.”

The numbers backed that up, too:

• Per Statcast, Hendricks averaged 87.5 mph with his sinker and 87.8 mph with his four-seam fastballs last season. Both rates were his highest since 2016, when he averaged 88.1 mph (sinker) and 90.2 mph (four-seam).

• Hendricks topped 90 mph on a fastball 14 times in 2023, representing more than in the 2017-22 seasons combined (seven times). You have to go back to ‘16, when he won an ERA title (2.13), to find more 90-plus mph heaters (he had 118 that year). Hendricks’ highest single-game rate last year was 89.1 mph on Sept. 29 in his final start of the season.

• While Hendricks is not known for spin rate by any means, the 2,156 rpms that he averaged on his changeups in ‘23 marked the highest rate on that pitch in his career.

• Hendricks held batters to a .180 average and .279 slugging percentage with his changeup last year. Those were his best marks since 2018 (also a .180 average) and 2016 (.236 SLG), respectively.

“Credit to Kyle,” Hottovy said, “to be able to put in the work and the time and effort to get where we wanted to get. You saw the fruits of that labor as the year went on. Not only was he a good version of himself, you could argue at times he pitched the best of his career in stretches.”

Overall, Hendricks turned in a 3.74 ERA in 24 starts, following an injury-marred two-year stretch with an uncharacteristically bloated 4.78 ERA. Last year, the righty finished with 93 strikeouts and 27 walks in 137 innings, while taking over his own pitch-calling via the PitchCom system.

Hendricks led the way with his changeup (41.1%), balancing that with his signature sinker (35.1%) and four-seamer (20.3%). The starter lowered his curveball use to just 3.5% of the time, but the curve's whiff rate (43.8%) was the highest he's registered on any single pitch for any season in his career, per Statcast.

The way Hendricks really felt like himself again last year was due to a heavy reliance on his bread-and-butter changeup.

Hendricks was also able to consistently and effectively manipulate his changeup into multiple versions again. There is a four-seam changeup that has cut action (away from a righty batter) and a two-seam option that has the traditional fade (away from a lefty hitter). He felt that he could better entice chase out of the zone, given the improvement with his fastball command and velocity.

“The changeups were the best versions of themselves that they had been in years,” he said.

It all set the foundation for a normal offseason for Hendricks, who is coming into camp confident that he can keep carrying forward as a reliable rotation piece for the Cubs in this crucial upcoming season.

“We felt like the things we focused on were the right things,” he said. “It got me back to who I wanted to be.”