Hendricks turns corner after shaky start

Cubs right-hander is 2-1 with 1.82 ERA in past five starts

May 23rd, 2017

CHICAGO -- When you're a fan, your job is to freak out. So far there have been plenty of reasons for Cubs fans to be anxious about the club's chances at another World Series run.

But here's a piece of advice on one of those front: Stop worrying about .

Something wasn't quite right with Hendricks in Spring Training, and it's still a mystery. But like in 2015, he wasn't ready to put his best foot forward coming out of Arizona, and it showed in April, especially in his first three starts.

Something kicked in for Hendricks when he faced the Pirates at PNC Park on April 26, though, and he's been able to build off that in May. The right-hander isn't going to successfully defend his National League ERA title, but he is 2-1 with a 1.82 ERA in his past five starts, cutting his season mark to a respectable 3.35.

Hendricks will try to build on that when he faces the Giants on Wednesday -- his first game against them since the NL Division Series. He lasted only 3 2/3 innings that night, which was his poorest outing in five postseason starts, capped by the assignment in Game 7 of the World Series.

Hendricks' poise and blank stare were keys to the Cubs sealing the NL Championship Series clincher against the Dodgers to reach the World Series, and they have served him well in getting his feet back underneath him, despite a drop in velocity this season.

You might have heard about the velocity. It's the rotation-wide loss of 1-2 mph from 2016 to '17, along with the staff's 4.35 ERA, that heads the list of reasons that fans are worried about the defending champs.

Lester is the only starter who has been as consistently effective as he was at this time a year ago. But when you look a little harder, you see that Hendricks is well on his way to again becoming a reliable No. 2 starter, as he was a year ago.

Hendricks' last start was just short of magnificent, actually. With the wind howling out to center field at 24 mph, he held the power-hitting Reds to two runs over six innings. That was a sure sign that Hendricks has turned the corner.

Because of Hendricks' mental toughness and the way he lives at the bottom of the strike zone, there's no one else in baseball you'd rather have on the mound at Wrigley Field when the wind is blowing out than "the Professor."

A handful of Hendricks' best career starts have come with the wind blowing out in his home park, beginning with a gem against the Nationals almost exactly two years ago. Hendricks was locked into that same zone last Wednesday. ran to a run in the first inning and Zack Cozart delivered a solo homer in the third, but Hendricks got better as the start went along.

Hendricks doesn't use his fastball to blow hitters away. He's still the guy Stanford didn't want because he doesn't throw hard. But velocity is nevertheless important to Hendricks because it helps make his changeup devastating.

Hendricks threw 94 changeups against the Dodgers and Indians in the postseason, both of whom he faced twice, and never allowed a hit. That's how good of a pitch his changeup can be when it works with his best fastball.

In Game 7 of the World Series, Hendricks' four-seam fastball averaged 89.3; his sinker was at 88.5. That was more than an 8-mph differential over his changeup, which averaged 80.1.

When pitchers lose velocity on their fastball, there's usually not an identical drop in how hard they throw their changeup. If the velocity doesn't come back, they have to work to throw their changeup slower.

Hendricks was still throwing his changeup at 80 mph in last week's start against the Reds, but his fastball had dropped to 87.0. The reduced differential no doubt plays into one major adjustment Hendricks has made.

Hendricks is throwing his changeup less and has just about abandoned his curveball, throwing no more than four of them in any of his past four starts, instead looking to his fastball. While that seems counterintuitive, the results show it's working.

Hendricks threw 80 fastballs (37 four-seamers, 43 sinkers) against the Reds, although that approach was partly his way of surviving the gusting winds.

Until and Hendricks gain a little more zip on their fastballs, the Cubs and their fans will watch radar guns anxiously. But Hendricks is talented enough, and smart enough, to thrive without it.

It was more than two years ago when I asked Hendricks if he was trying anything new to get such nasty movement on his changeup. He told me that he's basically been working to "manipulate'' the ball his whole life.

Don't be surprised if Hendricks gets his ERA below 3.00 before the All-Star Game, pitching his way onto Joe Maddon's NL team. He's very quietly turned the corner.