Cubs put 2020 opener in Hendricks' hands

July 16th, 2020

CHICAGO -- Cubs manager David Ross wanted to find the right moment to reveal his decision about the Opening Day starter. He chose to deliver the news during a meeting with all of the starting pitchers gathered together, and assigned that annual honor to right-hander .

Hendricks will take the ball on July 24 against the Brewers at Wrigley Field, with Yu Darvish -- also considered for the job -- starting the season's second game.

Hendricks appreciates how Ross went about the moment.

"It was even cooler to have those other guys in the room with me and just congratulating me," Hendricks said. "Especially guys like Jon [Lester] that have been around so long, somebody that I've looked up to for years on this team. I've learned so much from him about how to do it, how to go about it the right way."

The 36-year-old Lester was the Cubs' Opening Day starter in four of the last five years and each of the past three, and there was some thought after Ross' hiring in October that the veteran lefty would remain atop the rotation. But back in March, Ross made it clear that the decision would be between Hendricks and Darvish, who were ahead of Lester in terms of potential production.

When baseball and the sports world as a whole hit pause in March due to the COVID-19 crisis, Hendricks adjusted his throwing and workout routine. He tried to put himself in a position to ramp up quickly when the season's timeline was established, and he accomplished that goal in the weeks leading up to and during Summer Camp.

"He's further along than any of our starters," Ross said.

That was on display during an intrasquad game on Tuesday at Wrigley Field, where Hendricks spun 6 1/3 shutout innings with three strikeouts, no walks and one hit allowed. He crossed the 70-pitch plateau in the outing, while Darvish logged 60 pitches in 3 2/3 innings on the opposite side. If everything goes to plan, Hendricks could be ready for 100 pitches by the opener.

With a shortened 60-game season looming, that type of readiness on Hendricks' part played a role in Ross' decision about the first game. In addition, Hendricks has grown into a leader for Chicago's staff both in terms of his ability on the mound and his preparation and work ethic behind the scenes.

That maturation process is something that Ross, who caught for the Cubs in the 2015-16 seasons, has enjoyed witnessing both as a teammate and, now, manager.

"I remember when I first got here," Ross said, "the narrative was [Hendricks] couldn't go through the lineup three times, which makes me laugh now. ... And you talk about the poise. He's not afraid of the big moment. Same guy.

"It doesn't matter whether it's a scrimmage for us or Game 7, I've seen the same guy every time he's out there on the bump."

Hendricks famously took the ball for the Cubs in Game 7 of the 2016 World Series against Cleveland, and ended October with a 1.42 ERA in five starts. He has a 2.98 ERA in 51 1/3 career innings on the October stage, and has gone 63-43 with a 3.14 ERA in 163 regular-season games for Chicago.

Hendricks led the Majors in ERA (2.13) in 2016 and has been a steady hand within the rotation since his debut in '14. He has done this with a blend of prep and precision, as his pitch mix is built less on power and more on being perplexing. His four-seamer, for example, averaged 87.2 mph (via Statcast) in '19, ranking 188th out of 190 MLB pitchers (min. 500 results).

"I love the fact that he does something at the highest level and he does it differently," general manager Jed Hoyer said. "You talk to other people in the game, I think everyone, they just admire him. He's incredibly difficult to hit. Obviously, his command, his pitch mix, his preparation, his competitiveness is top of the scale."

That competitiveness was included in the Cubs' scouting reports on Hendricks when he was a Minor Leaguer with the Rangers.

Back in 2012, the Cubs' deal with the Braves for pitcher Ryan Dempster collapsed in the days leading up to the July 31 Trade Deadline. Chicago pivoted to Texas and reeled in Christian Villanueva and Hendricks for Dempster in a literal last-minute deal on Deadline Day. Hoyer said that Hendricks has made Chicago's front office look smart.

"I think our process was really good in that situation," Hoyer said. "I think we realized very quickly after we got him just how much our information was right about his makeup and about his competitiveness, about his preparation.

"And I always think in this situation, Kyle has made us look incredibly good, because ultimately, he's gotten better and better and better each year. The pitcher that we acquired, he's very different now."

Now Hendricks is an Opening Day starter.

After delivering the news to Hendricks in the group setting, Ross summoned him into his office to further discuss the decision.

"I told him, 'Hey, man, just so you know,'" Ross said, "'this was a lot more important to me to tell you on a man-to-man basis,' and kind of gave him my feelings about him and what I think he represents for our group."

"It means a ton to me," Hendricks said. "I thanked him over and over, but it's on me now to come through."