Chicago Cubs

The education of Kyle Hendricks and why Cubs won’t overreact to a slow start

The education of Kyle Hendricks and why Cubs won’t overreact to a slow start

Kyle Hendricks was coming off a breakthrough season where he had been the organization’s minor league pitcher of the year when the Cubs invited him to their rookie development program in Chicago.

Coordinated with Cubs Convention in January 2014 – to give prospects a sense of the market’s rabid fan base and media spotlight – Hendricks sat down with scouting/player development chief Jason McLeod and farm director Jaron Madison inside the team’s Clark Street offices.

“We were doing his offseason player plan with him,” McLeod recalled. “We take a lot of pride in putting these things together, strengths and weaknesses, and so we give Kyle his and I’m doing the intro: ‘Well, obviously, it was a great year you’ve had, winning pitcher of the year, not that there were many weaknesses to what you did…’

“He like almost cut me off and he goes: ‘No, I think there were plenty of weaknesses.’ He didn’t say this, but he almost had a look on his face like: ‘This is all you got?’”

This was days before the New York Yankees would win the Masahiro Tanaka sweepstakes, and Hendricks had only six starts above the Double-A level on his resume. By that July, Hendricks would step into a rotation that took a short-term hit when the Cubs shipped Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel to the Oakland A’s in the Addison Russell trade.  

“They were giving me s--- for that,” Hendricks said with a laugh. “There were a few things I pointed out. It caught them by surprise. They told me all this good stuff, and I was like: ‘Where is the stuff I need to work on?’ It was pretty funny.”

The education of Hendricks, who has a degree in economics from Dartmouth College, never stops. He does yoga, focuses on breathing and absorbs scouting reports. He doesn’t need to look at the scoreboard or the radar gun to know when something is off.

“Kyle is still not on top of his game yet,” manager Joe Maddon said in the Wrigley Field interview room after Wednesday’s 7-4 comeback win over the Milwaukee Brewers. “I would say more than anything it would be the velocity.

“It’s all there – he’s not injured, he feels good. He threw one 86-mph fastball right by (Eric) Thames, only because he had been below that, and all of a sudden that’s 86. My point is, when he gets back to 87-88, then you’re going to see that greater separation between the fastball and the changeup.

“Right now, there’s not a dramatic separation between the two pitches, and that’s where the disconnect is for him now. I’m fully confident that he’s going to get that uptick in velocity back. And then you’ll see that greater separation, and then you see the bad swings.” 

It would be impossible to expect Hendricks to match the 2.13 ERA he put up last season, an incredible combination of Ivy League smarts, mechanics in alignment and soaring confidence. Jake Arrieta played a similar game of expectations last year after winning a Cy Young Award and still managed to beat the Cleveland Indians twice in the World Series.

So the Cubs certainly aren’t going to overreact to three not-great starts in April where Hendricks has gone only five innings twice and given up three or four runs each time, leaving him with a 6.19 ERA. The Cubs have won two of those three starts, and slotting Hendricks fifth in the rotation did create an eight-day layoff to start the season.

Last year’s third-place finish in the National League Cy Young Award voting generated the most attention, but look at this 75-start sample (plus one relief appearance) for Hendricks in a Cubs uniform heading into this season: 31-17, 2.92 ERA, 1.070 WHIP.

Check out four of the first six names that pop up under “Similarity Scores” on Hendricks’ Baseball-Reference page: New York Mets aces Jacob deGrom, Matt Harvey and Noah Syndergaard, plus Tanaka.  

“The biggest thing that will get you in trouble is that you try to top that,” Jon Lester said. “Instead of a 2.2 or a 2.1 (ERA), it’s ‘I want a 1.8’ and you start kind of putting that in your mind. That’s why, for me, I’ve always just tried to stay with that 200-inning goal. Make every start and (reach) 200 innings, because I know that I’ll be somewhere around where I normally am.

“You’re going to have years like last year where Kyle wins (16) games and he has a (2.13 ERA). And then you’re going to have years where you get your butt kicked and you’re kind of doing the same stuff and you don’t really know why. You just try to maintain. (And) at the end of the year, you look up and you’re right there.

“We kind of know who (Kyle) is and what to expect. He made some really big adjustments for himself last year that obviously worked. So now it’s a matter of: Is the league going to adjust to him with them seeing him a couple times? He’s a smart kid. He knows. He makes really good in-game adjustments.

“The sky’s the limit. Is he going to have the 2.1? Who knows? We have a really good defense and I know that saved a lot of runs for us last year.”   

The Associated Press reported Major League Baseball Advanced Media is now using Statcast instead of PITCHf/x to report velocities, which has led to some upticks around the game. Here’s how FanGraphs has clocked Hendricks’ average fastball since 2015: 88.3, 87.8 and 85.4 mph.

Hendricks – who led the majors with a .581 opponents’ OPS last year – has given up four homers in 16 innings this season. As a control/command pitcher, Hendricks walked four Brewers during Wednesday’s no-decision, including pitcher Tommy Milone on four pitches.   

“Overall, still just need to kind of find that groove and lock it in,” Hendricks said. “My mechanics have been a little off, I’ve noticed, the last two weeks or so. I ramped up my throwing, so maybe throwing more has caused that. I just got to find the right balance right now.

“I just don’t feel strong out there, so I got to get my arm strength and feel like I can step on it (and) get the velocity back. And then from there, my changeup will just play off it.”

Hendricks emerged last year as the ace we didn’t see coming, allowing three earned runs or less in 22 straight starts from May 22 to Sept. 26, beating Clayton Kershaw and the Los Angeles Dodgers the night the Cubs won their first pennant in 71 years and starting an epic World Series Game 7.

“That’s kind of been my MO – I’ve always been a slow starter,” Hendricks said. “You don’t like to be that way. You’re always trying to combat that. But, again, I felt good in spring. It just hasn’t transitioned yet. It’s staying with the process. I know what I have to do.”

While 2017 has been underwhelming for other hitters, Ian Happ has become a reliable rookie fixture for Cubs

While 2017 has been underwhelming for other hitters, Ian Happ has become a reliable rookie fixture for Cubs

Go ahead. Be honest.

Did you really see Ian Happ coming this fast?

Obviously you knew he’d be here one day, another one of Theo Epstein’s much-ballyhooed first-round draft picks, a position player destined to fit snugly into the Cubs’ long-term lineup.

But Happ was drafted mere months before the Cubs made their breakout run to the 2015 National League Championship Series. He spent his first full season as a professional while the big league team marched to that curse-smashing World Series championship.

Though like Kris Bryant and Addison Russell and Kyle Schwarber and Willson Contreras before him, Happ has landed in the big leagues and become a fixture in the North Side batting order. He’s an everyday player who might not be tearing the cover off the ball on a daily basis, but it’s now hard to imagine the lineup without him.

“I’ve felt really good since I’ve been here,” Happ said earlier this week, “the way guys are super accepting and the way they’ve embraced me in the clubhouse, I couldn’t ask for more. Being with the team for the entire spring training, getting to know the guys, it made it easy for the transitional period and making me feel like I belong right away.”

Happ showed his stuff Saturday, playing a starring role in the North Siders’ narrow 4-3 win over the visiting Toronto Blue Jays. Happ was on base three times, drove in a pair of runs and scored twice, too. He drove in the game’s first run in the first inning, launched a game-tying solo homer in the fourth and scored the go-ahead run on a Javy Baez base hit in the sixth.

Right in the middle of the action is where Happ’s been since he arrived in the bigs back in the middle of May.

It’s been a good thing, too. Because at this point in this odd season, this quest to repeat that has hardly gone according to plan, it’s possible that the Cubs aren’t in first place without Happ. A playoff spot is still nowhere close to a certainty with the Milwaukee Brewers and St. Louis Cardinals hot on the Cubs’ tail in the NL Central standings.

With the underachieving and in some cases injury-plagued seasons to date from the likes of Russell, Schwarber, Ben Zobrist and Jason Heyward, the reliability of Happ has made him, even if quietly, one of the key cogs on a team that is still in first place, even if they haven’t been able to pull away and lock down a third straight trip to the postseason.

And he’s doing all this with just 80 games of major league service time.

“I think the more experience you get, as you start to see different pitchers over and over again, you kind of start to see the way guys are going to pitch you, the way the game develops,” Happ said earlier this week. “The more experience you have with that, it kind of helps you to slow the game down.

“I think all the way up for me, once you move up a level, you have to adjust. Sometimes, it happens quick and sometimes it’s more of a process. I feel like I’ve had to make adjustments at every level and definitely this level, you’re making adjustments every day. The quicker you can make them, the better off you’ll be.”

As mentioned, Happ isn’t putting up some sort of jaw-dropping, send-him-to-Cooperstown kind of a rookie season. He's hitting .249 after Saturday’s two-hit day, and undoubtedly he’s had his struggles. In his last 21 games prior to Saturday, he hit .189 and punctuated that rocky stretch with a four-strikeout day Friday against this same Blue Jays team.

But his .819 OPS ranks fifth among NL rookies. It ranks fourth on the Cubs, lower only than Bryant, Anthony Rizzo and Contreras. He’s also in the top five on the team in RBIs and slugging percentage. Saturday’s long ball was his 18th homer of his 80-game season. Extrapolate those numbers to the team’s 122 games on the season, and he’d have more than 25 dingers already.

Thrown into the major league fire, he’s doing all this while asked to be an everyday contributor for a team with World Series aspirations — or rather World Series expectations.

“It’s tough. It’s a new adjustment,” Rizzo said Saturday. “It’s a new everyday grind up here that’s different from the minor leagues. And he’s hit his bumps along the way, but he keeps adjusting, keeps virtually getting better every day. And it’s fun when you see his success pay off.”

“The game ebbs and flows all the time,” Happ said Saturday. “That’s why it’s a beautiful game and a terrible game at the same time. You’re going to have your good weeks, your bad weeks, good days, bad days. Being able to stay even and keep fighting through it is important.”

While the focus for the Cubs is on the present and winning the NL Central crown, this franchise’s championship window extends far beyond the end of the 2017 campaign. Happ will continue to be a big piece of that window staying open, and Maddon said that this rookie season will have positive effects far down the road.

“Developmentally, I think this year’s going to be a boon to him for next year, absolutely, getting this kind of experience,” Maddon said earlier this week. “Defensively, I think he’s really improved at second base. I think he’s very nice in the outfield. I think there’s actually more positions he can venture into, whether it’s first base, third base, other things that he can do that make him even more valuable.

“The moment he starts forcing pitchers into the zone, he’s got extreme power. He really does. He’s not tall, but he’s strong. The ball comes off his bat as hot as anybody out there. It’s just a matter of him understanding the major league game and what they’re trying to do and veteran pitchers trying to take advantage of young hitters, which they do often. You’ve just got to make sure you force this guy back over the plate.

“When he learns that, like these other guys, they’re going to be very good players.”

Surely the future is bright for Happ, as it is for many of the Cubs’ young players. But as it’s plain to see on a daily basis, there’s a lot of brightness right now, too. Happ might be a rookie, but he sure doesn’t act like it. And at times, with his play, he sure doesn’t look like it, either.

“I’ve felt comfortable here, I have for a long time, and I feel really great with this group of guys,” Happ said Saturday. “And winning baseball games is a lot of fun.”

If the Cubs are going to keep winning baseball games, expect Happ to play a major role.

In thick of tight division race, Cubs add catcher Rene Rivera: 'You can't have enough experience'

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USA TODAY

In thick of tight division race, Cubs add catcher Rene Rivera: 'You can't have enough experience'

If this was 2016, the Cubs might not have bothered to acquire Rene Rivera.

But this isn’t 2016.

The Cubs have a vastly different catching situation than they did a year ago. But even more importantly, they’ve been unable to build any sort of lead in a crowded National League Central race.

Rivera, claimed off waivers from the New York Mets on Saturday morning, almost surely won’t end up being the guy who fuels the Cubs’ pulling away from the Milwaukee Brewers and St. Louis Cardinals. But with Willson Contreras on the disabled list, Miguel Montero on the Toronto Blue Jays, Alex Avila not even a month into his Cubs tenure and Victor Caratini just 17 games into his big league career, adding an extra veteran presence behind the plate seems like a pretty good idea.

“It’s like you can’t have enough pitching. You can’t have enough experience, depth-wise, especially at that position,” manager Joe Maddon said Saturday. “So I though we were very fortunate to be able to do this right now. Theo (Epstein, team president) told me about the potential yesterday, obviously it happened.”

This time last season, the Cubs had a reliable 1-2 punch behind the plate with Montero and Contreras. And more notably they had a double-digit lead in the NL Central standings. There’s been an awful lot of change since, with Montero’s brutal honesty getting him shipped off to Canada and Contreras injuring his leg in San Francisco.

Fortunately for the Cubs, they invested some of their last remaining minor league capital in acquiring Avila. Avila won’t replicate the kind of offensive production that made Contreras the hottest hitter on the team, but he’s a very capable starting catcher during Contreras’ time on the shelf.

And while Caratini has been fine — in fact, he’s hitting .400 since Contreras went down and collected three hits in Friday’s win over the Blue Jays — the Cubs are no longer about getting guys experience in August and September. The stakes are much higher.

The Cubs might’ve been an unstoppable juggernaut during the 2016 regular season. This year, though, has been a much different story, and a playoff spot is hardly a certainty.

Rivera isn’t going to solve the problems that have made it so the Cubs are stuck fighting for the crown of a middle-of-the-road division. But he’ll bring veteran experience to a playoff race that could last all the way until the season’s final days.

Rivera has been playing big league ball since 2004 but has totaled just nine years of major league service since then, serving in backup roles and just twice appearing in more than 100 games in a season. The Cubs raved about his defensive ability Saturday — as well as the eight homers he hit in 54 games for the Mets this season.

“He’s very good. Saw him with different teams, we’ve all seen him. He’s got a great reputation,” Maddon said. “Nice fella. Very good defensive player, great reputation. And he's got some pop, too. He hit a couple home runs. So that veteran kind of presence, the depth that it provides is all good stuff.”

No announcement has been made about the active roster. Minor league pitcher Aaron Brooks was designated for assignment to make room for Rivera on the 40-man roster. But the general thinking is that Caratini will head back to Triple-A Iowa.

“He’s done really well,” Maddon said of Caratini. “The way he’s blocked pitches in the dirt has been spectacular. I’ve enjoyed watching his receiving and his blocking, too. The pitchers have been really happy with him. … He’s very aware of building relationships with his pitchers, which I like. And it seems as if the pitchers are into him, too.

“There’s a great future for him in this game.”

But right now, the Cubs need all the experience they can get.