With baseball still on hold due to the coronavirus pandemic, classic Cubs playoff games have been getting a lot of air time. Watching the 2016 World Series run has got me thinking about the Cubs’ impressive stretch of success under Theo Epstein and company. A huge part of that was the pitching triumvirate of Jon Lester, Jake Arrieta, and Kyle Hendricks, the latter of whom isn’t often viewed with the same reverence as the others.
While the Professor’s calm demeanor and sub-90’s fastball don’t draw as many eyes as Lester’s big “dugout” energy or Arrieta’s nasty slutter, I’d argue he has actually been the Cubs’ best pitcher since debuting in 2014. What separates Hendricks from his teammates is not just the stats he’s posted, but the consistency with which he’s posted them.
His ERA has fluctuated a little, but his FIP — which doesn’t rely on fielding — has hovered between 3.20 and 3.88, with his 3.53 career average sitting smack in the middle. Even accounting for the smaller sample, neither Lester nor Arrieta displayed the same tight range over comparable periods in their own careers.
Hendricks’ walk and strikeout rates have remained within a tight window, fluctuating by 1.17 K and and 0.95 BB from his highest and lowest full-season marks. Other than a finger injury that limited him to 139.2 innings in 2017, he has thrown between 177 and 199 innings over 30-33 starts in four of the last five seasons.
While pitcher wins above replacement are only slightly more reliable than pitcher wins and losses, it’s impossible to deny Hendricks’ steady accumulation on that front. He’s posted 17.5 WAR since 2015, significantly higher than the 13.4 Lester has put up thanks to a couple of bumpy years. Arrieta just barely edges Hendricks out with 17.6 WAR, but his total is buoyed by a massive 8.3 mark during his 2015 Cy Young season.
Though it can’t be quantified, the detached demeanor more befitting a tax attorney than a big league ace is a huge asset. The only sweet emotion Hendricks displays is his warmup music, a poetic self-aware nod for a guy who goes about his business with a preternatural calm that makes him an invaluable big-game pitcher. He dazzled in Game 6 of the 2016 NLCS, then managed to overcome a shaky start to Game 7 of the World Series to hold Cleveland to just a single run in 4.2 frames to end the Cubs’ drought.
More than the stats, it’s that simplicity and steadiness that really seals it for me when it comes to naming Hendricks the best pitcher in recent Cubs history. What you see is what you get with him. No flash, no emotion, just getting people out and posting numbers in line with the best in the game. He may not get the most praise, but there is no one I would rather taking the mound for my team in a must-win game.