Ready for a comeback, retooled Hendricks returns to the mound

February 25th, 2023

MESA, Ariz. -- did not hide his smile when he walked up one of the mounds at the Cubs' complex on Friday morning. This was not only the beginning of a new phase in his throwing program, but a big mental lift for the veteran pitcher.

"The first real fun I've had in probably seven and a half months," Hendricks said. "Who's counting, though? It was so fun just to be out there."

Hendricks had not thrown a pitch off a mound since July 5 in Milwaukee, where his 2022 season ended with a three-inning outing that served as the full stop on a frustrating, injury-marred year. The time had arrived to shut things down and get to the bottom of what led to the capsular tear in his right shoulder.

That added another layer of importance to Friday's morning mound workout. This was the first public look at Hendricks' altered arm path, which the Cubs feel will ease the strain on his shoulder and help him get back to being the rotation leader he has been in the past.

"The most important thing is getting him back to pitching like Kyle Hendricks," Cubs president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer said. "And we're willing to wait a little while for that."

was not originally scheduled to catch Hendricks' light "touch and feel" bullpen session, but the veteran catcher was there for the 10:30 am workout. Hendricks then worked deliberately through 10 pitches, ending the quick reintroduction to the hill with a smile, handshake and hug with Gomes.

Hendricks' throwing schedule calls for at least two more light mound workouts and 10-12 normal bullpen sessions to follow. The timetable puts him roughly a month behind the rest of the arms in camp, but the Cubs are confident their depth can help absorb his absence.

That makes it easier for all parties involved to make sure Hendricks is focused on his rehab without feeling a need to rush back before he is truly ready.

"It helps tremendously," Cubs pitching coach Tommy Hottovy said. "You don't ever want to be in a position where you have to push somebody just because you need them in that role. You end up cutting corners."

Health is a major component to Hendricks' comeback, but there is also the need for his mechanical changes to reach the point of feeling natural. Over the past several years, the righty's arm path became elongated. Hendricks would bring his arm straight back, sometimes hold it out for too long and, in turn, put unnecessary strain on his shoulder.

The goal for Hendricks now is to have a quicker, more efficient move from glove separation to pitch release. He has never relied on high velocity, but maybe the change can help him regain a few clicks on the radar gun. More important for Hendricks is having his sinker and changeup feature their usual movement.

Visually, it is a subtle change, but Hendricks said it feels a lot different. He had to get used to the retooled motion in playing catch and long toss before even thinking about moving to a mound.

At the advice of -- who went through a similar delivery change in 2019 after his second Tommy John surgery -- Hendricks began taking video of nearly every catch session to compare how he felt to how things looked. He tracked his velocity in every workout and adopted drills with weighted PlyoCare balls and inflated "connection" balls to reinforce the mechanics.

In one drill, Hendricks would go through his motion with the connection ball wedged between his arm and hip. In another, it was in the crook of his elbow. He would go through his delivery and keep track of when the ball dropped from its position.

"It helps you figure out the most efficient way to throw," Taillon said. "So that helps."

If everything goes well, the hope would be that the 33-year-old Hendricks can come close to the pitcher who logged a 3.12 ERA across the 2014-20 seasons for the Cubs. Last year, the injury woes limited him to 16 outings and he posted the highest ERA (4.80) of his career.

"We've got freakin' Hendricks waiting in the wings," Taillon said. "I don't know what his exact timeline is, but that's like a trade acquisition right there. He's pitched a lot of big games. He's been out there for a lot of big moments. I know he means a lot to this organization. It'd be really nice to get him back."