When thinking about bounceback seasons on the 2023 Chicago Cubs, you’d be forgiven for seeing the excellent season Cody Bellinger is putting together giving it your full attention. After all, the former NL MVP was one of the worst regulars in baseball over the past two seasons and has bounced back to not only be an above-average regular but the best hitter set to hit the free agent market this side of Shohei Ohtani. If you look a little further down the club’s WAR leaderboard, however, you’ll find there’s another player on the team who received award voting recognition early in his career for whom things seemingly started to come apart at the seams over the past two seasons, only for him to rebound in a big way in 2023 with a unexpectedly strong season. That player is right-handed veteran Kyle Hendricks.
The lone remaining player of Chicago’s 2016 World Series core, Hendricks was once one of the best starters in the majors in terms of sheer run prevention. Between the years of 2016 and 2020, only five pitchers with at least 500 innings of work posted a lower ERA than Hendricks: Clayton Kershaw, Jacob deGrom, Max Scherzer, Justin Verlander, and Corey Kluber. Unlike the five multi-time Cy Young winners ahead of him, Hendricks has never been looked at as on the shortlist of the best pitchers in the league. While Hendricks finished third in Cy Young award voting in 2016 behind Scherzer and teammate Jon Lester, he’s only received votes one other time in his career and has never made an All Star game.
The main culprit for that is his lack of strikeouts. Even during his 2016-20 peak he ranked among the league’s bottom 20 hurlers in terms of strikeout rate, and his fastball hasn’t average 90 mph since his sophomore season as a big league regular back in 2016. Hendricks made up for that during his peak years with pinpoint control (5.3% walk rate), a strong 46.6% groundball rate, and a penchant for suppressing the long ball (11.5% HR/FB). Still, those positive traits couldn’t completely outweigh his lack of strikeouts and left him with a 3.60 FIP that, while strong, was more in the realm of Yu Darvish and Blake Snell than Kershaw and deGrom.
Unfortunately for Hendricks, his dominance in terms of run prevention wouldn’t last. The 2021 and 2022 seasons proved to be brutal ones for Hendricks, as he not only was a below average starting pitcher for the first time in his career but dealt with a capsular tear in his throwing shoulder during 2022 that left him shut down partway through the year. Across his 265 1/3 innings of work those two seasons, the results were nothing short of ugly: his 4.78 ERA with a 4.87 FIP in that time were 16% and 18% worse than the league average, respectively. Meanwhile, his peripheral numbers declined across the board his strikeout rate dipped from the 21.1% of his peak years to just 17.3%, his walk rate climbed to 6%, his groundball rate dropped to 41%, and he began to allow home runs on 14.8% of his fly balls.
Heading into the 2023 season, it was fair to wonder if the tightrope act of Hendricks’s early career, where he managed to get elite results despite a fastball that would’ve been slower than average 20 years ago thanks to excellent command and quality of contact numbers, was over. After all, he was pairing a bottom ten strikeout rate in the majors with a 8.8% barrel rate that was lower than only 26 other players with at least 200 innings of work between those years, figures that put him in the same conversation as Zach Plesac and Dallas Keuchel. Chicago’s $14.5MM decision on Hendricks’s $16MM club option for 2024 figured to be declined without as much as a second thought.
Ever since making his season debut in May, however, Hendricks appears to have climbed right back up on the tightrope. The now 33-year-old righty has posted a 3.66 ERA that’s 24% better than league average with a 3.80 FIP across 23 starts (132 2/3 innings of work) this season. Those top level numbers put him in the same conversation as quality mid-rotation arms like Charlie Morton, Jesus Luzardo, Freddy Peralta and Eduardo Rodriguez. A look at his peripheral numbers mostly backs up the veteran’s return to form, as well: his 4.3% walk rate this season is the best of his career in a 162-game season, and his 45.2% groundball rate is a top-25 figure in the majors that appears in the same conversation as players like Ohtani and Corbin Burnes.
That said, there are still some potential red flags. Most obviously, Hendricks is striking out less batters than ever before this year, even by his own standards. His strikeout rate is ninth-worst among pitchers with at least 130 innings this year, and no other pitcher in the bottom ten is above average by both ERA- and FIP-. Meanwhile, his 8.7% HR/FB rate is the lowest of his career, indicating that some regression should be expected in that regard. His barrel rate has dropped from the 8.8% figure he posted the last two years, which is a positive sign, but 6.4% figure is still a far cry from the 4.3% he posted in his prime.
Between Hendricks’s quality mid-rotation production in 2023, his track record as something of a unicorn in the modern game, and these potential red flags when digging into his profile, that aforementioned $14.5MM decision the Cubs face on his 2024 option figures to be one of the more interesting decisions a club will be faced with this offseason. Should his option be declined, the veteran righty figures to add another intriguing arm to what’s already an unusually deep free agent class when it comes to starting pitching. Regardless of what the future holds for Hendricks, though, his rebound has been one of the biggest surprises for a Cubs team that has surpassed expectations across the board this season.