Kyle Hendricks continues evolution from soft-tossing new guy to Cubs' go-to guy

"I've learned so much about myself," said Cubs pitcher Kyle Hendricks. "This is my peak time." Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

MESA, Ariz. -- For the player the Chicago Cubs call The Professor, the experiment is long over. Or as Jon Lester says of Kyle Hendricks, “The training wheels are off.”

Hendricks, now married and making his first millions in the big leagues, is no longer just the quirky soft-tosser who went to an Ivy League school. He’s an established mainstay of the Cubs rotation and a player trying to put it back together after an injury-plagued 2017.

“I’ve learned so much about myself,” Hendricks said over the weekend. “This is my peak time. The amount that I’ve learned is amazing. You think you know everything, but every year in this game I’ve learned about myself.”

Hendricks has had an every-other-year type of odyssey so far in the big leagues -- if you consider a 3.03 ERA an “off” year. That was his mark last season after leading all starters in 2016 with a nifty 2.13. In reality, the second half of 2017 was more like the old Hendricks. His 2.19 ERA ranked third in baseball behind Corey Kluber and Justin Verlander. It’s becoming obvious what Hendricks needs to do to be elite.

“The big thing is him staying healthy,” Lester said. “The training wheels are off, per se, as far as an organizational aspect. They limited him in ’15 and ’16. Last year he had stuff going on. Now it’s just pitching.”

The "stuff" going on last season was a sore tendon in his pitching hand that sidelined him for about seven weeks. But Hendricks won’t use it as an excuse. In his mind, his first-half ERA of 4.09 was about mechanics, not injury.

“I could not get into my mechanics both last year and in 2015,” Hendricks said. “Something wasn’t right.”

A shoe problem at the end of 2014 led to some uncertainty heading into 2015 -- a switch from Nike to New Balance helped, but Hendricks struggled, and there were doubters who wondered whether he could actually be successful throwing in the mid-80s. Lester, however, never doubted that the maturity in Hendricks’ game would show up.

“I got a front-row seat for it,” Lester recalled. “He went from comfortable and being OK to being uncomfortable and being really good. It’s a hard step to take. He did that in 2015. It’s really cool to see him take that and go off on it.”

Catching coach and game planner Mike Borzello agreed, pointing to a time when he challenged Hendricks by telling the young pitcher he could either be a journeyman fifth starter or, perhaps, find something more. Being "uncomfortable" meant not just relying on what got him to the big leagues and learning to follow a game plan, even if it was asking him to do something he wasn't used to. Once Hendricks took to it, everything changed.

“He went to Dartmouth,” Lester said with smile. “Immature people don’t go to Dartmouth.”

Then came 2016.

Hendricks dominated as the season progressed, eventually winning the ERA title before he famously dueled Clayton Kershaw in Game 6 of the NLCS that season and started Game 7 of the World Series.

“It is still mind-blowing,” Hendricks said. “It’s hard to fathom or put into words. I dreamed of being in the big leagues, but to lead the league in ERA and pitch like that, I never would have imagined that.”

He’s in an even better place now, after getting married, settling on a $4 million contract for 2018 and even being invited to an exclusive event: the Shohei Ohtani sales pitch.

“It was eye-opening,” Hendricks recalled. “Seeing how that whole process worked.”

No, it wasn’t veteran Jon Lester or team leader Anthony Rizzo that Cubs brass asked to attend their meeting with the Japanese star last fall -- it was the mild-mannered Hendricks. Theo Epstein wanted someone who could articulate what the Cubs do for their pitchers, including the unique game plans put together by Borzello. There was one problem: Hendricks was on his honeymoon. He and his new wife were enjoying the sun in Bora Bora when they opened their laptop.

“[Epstein’s] email started with ‘My wife is going to kill me for this,’” Hendricks said, laughing at his boss' acknowledgement of the faux pas of asking him a work question during his honeymoon.

Fortunately, the meeting took place on the day Hendricks landed in Los Angeles after their vacation. The Cubs didn’t sign Ohtani, but the whole experience was another signal to Hendricks that he wasn’t just an employee trying to keep his job, he was part of the core of the Chicago Cubs.

Confidence is a big part of baseball, and Hendricks has never had it more than over these past couple of years -- both on and off the field.

“Confidence can help a lot,” Hendricks explained. “It does depend on the personality you have. I do like to be settled. Getting married is very settling, and obviously the contract gives you a little bit of security. ... All of it solidified what these guys have been telling me, just to be me and it can be successful.”

His manager sees the same thing everyone else does.

“He’s really confident where he is right now,” Joe Maddon said. “He’s overcome some difficult moments and made adjustments.”

Hendricks is leaving no stone unturned. He wants to make all 32 starts this year, and he wants to develop beyond what you see on the mound.

“To reach the top of the game, it is health, being consistent, handling the bat even,” Hendricks said. “If you want to be that top-of-the-rotation guy, you want to be left in there for that third AB. Even fielding my position could be better.”

More than anything, Hendricks will always have his brain to help him out. Lester is amazed at how he goes about a game plan.

“I can literally sit there with the scouting report in front of me and call every pitch he’s going to make,” Lester said. “And then he makes it.”

Armed with a catalog of knowledge on hitters he didn’t possess in previous years, combined with the confidence of knowing he’s been an elite pitcher in the past and now a settled home life and good health, Hendricks is ready for another season among the elite arms in the game.

“He can be that guy,” Lester said. “He already has been.”