As Cubs move on from 2016, Kyle Hendricks will try to reboot career with new program

Kyle Hendricks looks like the last player standing from the 2016 World Series team. The Chicago Cubs will soon formally release Jason Heyward, and the operating assumption is that Willson Contreras will reject a one-year, $19.65 million qualifying offer and sign with another organization for the first time since he was a teenager in Venezuela. Even Hendricks’ situation is tenuous as he goes through a pivotal offseason that could determine whether he can reinvent himself and pitch into his mid-to-late 30s. Or begin to think about how he might eventually use his knowledge, experience and Ivy League degree to do something else in the baseball industry.

Any discussion about Hendricks’ future starts with how widely respected he is throughout the Cubs organization for maximizing every ounce of his talent and doing his job so professionally. His career earnings to this point exceed $53 million, according to Baseball Reference’s salary database. His legacy is secure as the Game 7 starter the night the Cubs ended a 108-year championship drought.

Hendricks also didn’t pitch after the All-Star break this year. That might have been a different story if the team had been in the playoff race. Instead, the Cubs shut down Hendricks early, essentially trying to create an offseason during the season, according to sources familiar with the club’s thinking, so that he could have a longer runway to rest his right shoulder, focus on strength and conditioning, then start a Driveline-style program designed to boost his velocity.

Hendricks isn’t scheduled to begin throwing again until early December, or right around his 33rd birthday and when the free-agent bazaar will open at Major League Baseball’s Winter Meetings in San Diego. Again, that timeline is part of a multiphase plan for Hendricks; it does not necessarily signal a setback. The idea is that Hendricks first needs to regain some athleticism and get as close to 100 percent as possible to test out some of these training concepts.

The Cubs understand that relying on Hendricks to be “The Professor” again next season would be foolish. They’re also not ruling out a return to the form that once made him one of the game’s most reliable pitchers. There’s an acceptance that he’s a wild card. They’re looking at what he could give them — potentially a lot or a little — as a bonus.

Part of the reasoning behind Hendricks’ decision to sign a long-term contract extension in 2019 — making him an exception among his younger, high-profile teammates from the greatest era in franchise history — was that teams particularly value pure stuff and untapped potential on the free-agent market. Any slight dip in velocity or drop from his physical peak — which is natural from aging and pitching for so long in the majors — could have outsized consequences for Hendricks, who will earn $14 million next season while the Cubs hold a $16 million club option for 2024.

Setting aside 2017 — when Hendricks was clearly tired from a long championship season and needed time to build back up — this year marked the lowest average velocity for his four-seamer and sinker. Although his velocity has never fully bounced back to the 2016 levels, Hendricks has still been able to find success. In 2018 and 2019 combined, Hendricks accounted for 63 starts, 376 innings and a 3.45 ERA. According to FanGraphs, those seasons represented the next two best years of his career by WAR after his brilliant 2016 campaign.

In those years, Hendricks averaged around 86.6 mph on his sinker, barely above the 86.5 mph registered this past season. Since then, however, his changeup has gotten firmer and the average gap between the sinker and the changeup has gone from around 8 mph to 6.5. That may seem minimal, but for a pitcher with very little margin for error, it can be disastrous. In 2021, it resulted in a season when Hendricks posted an ERA above 4.00 (4.77) for the first time in his career. It carried into an injury-plagued 2022 season that again saw him struggle (4.80 ERA) when he was on the mound.

Of course, getting healthy this winter is the priority, but there are other goals. Getting stronger can have various benefits, with one of them hopefully being a jump in velocity. Even getting to 88 mph regularly could have a big impact on Hendricks’ performance. There’s also a consensus that his delivery isn’t where it once was, less fluid and aggressive. Proper training in the offseason could address that issue and also result in a better-performing changeup.

There will always be tradeoffs. Pushing for more velocity could make it harder to post 30 starts in a season, and Hendricks may be at the stage of his career when he makes sense to occasionally take some extra rest instead of taking the ball every fifth day and pitching through physical issues. Either way, the Cubs plan to build a deeper, more versatile pitching staff for next season.

Nothing worked for Hendricks in 2022. Hardly a swing-and-miss artist before, he cratered in that department in 2021 (16.7 percent) and followed it up with only his second season below 20 percent since 2014. He also failed to be above the 40 percent mark on groundballs this year, pairing his second-lowest soft-contact season with his second-highest hard-contact season. Health and diminished stuff are the main factors here, both of which have to be corrected this winter if he’s going to be part of another playoff run at Wrigley Field.

(Photo: Kamil Krzaczynski/USA Today)

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