Kyle Hendricks has put together an uncharacteristically mediocre season, one that has gotten much worse since just before the trade deadline. Over his last 10 starts, the righty has a 7.47 ERA that’s flying high on the strength of 44 earned runs over 53 innings. He has also walked 20 batters in that time, including four games in which he’s walked three. For the sake of comparison, Hendricks walked eight batters in 12 starts last season and only walked two in a game twice.
Fatigue could be a factor in the would-be ace’s struggles, though you won’t find evidence of it in the most obvious spot. Hendricks’ velo numbers are right in line with what he put up in the short season, with the fastball and sinker just one-tenth of a tick lower and the change and curve actually being thrown harder. All his pitches are above any averages since 2016, but there could be more to it than that.
Only Zack Wheeler (271.1), Adam Wainwright (256), and Germán Márquez (252.2) have logged more innings than Hendricks (251.2) since the start of last season, so that could be a factor. Hendricks has also made 42 starts in that span, more than anyone other than Márquez, Luis Castillo, and Zach Davies (43 apiece).
While old-schoolers will scoff at these numbers, noting that Fergie Jenkins made 40 or more starts in three seasons and exceeded 250 innings in nine consecutive campaigns, the long-tail effects of 2020 can’t be overlooked. The up-and-down nature of the pandemic-shortened season might be taxing Hendricks in a way that can’t necessarily be discerned by even the Cubs’ advanced data.
“We don’t know, right? That could definitely be a factor,” Ross replied when asked about the pitcher’s workload. “We can definitely take that into consideration. We can take it into consideration that it’s the first time he hasn’t pitched for something other than his own personal stats.”
What Ross and the Cubs do know is that Hendricks wants to finish out the season rather than being shut down early, the possibility of which has been thrown around publicly in the wake of the aforementioned poor performance. It’s not as if the team is trying to protect a playoff position or limit a young pitcher’s exposure, so the only real concern should be for what Hendricks wants to do.
Unless there’s a legitimate health concern, and there isn’t at this point, maybe he’ll be able to figure something out in these last few starts.
One pitcher who almost certainly won’t be able to figure it out over the next couple weeks is flame-throwing rookie Manny Rodríguez. The righty was placed on the 10-day IL Friday with shoulder inflammation and there simply isn’t enough time left to get him ready to throw again even if everything clears up quickly.
“It’d be hard to build him back up even,” Ross conceded. “So I would assume that’s probably going to be it.”
Rodríguez started out hot, posting a 2.40 ERA over his first 16 appearances that included one rough outing in which he allowed four total runs (one earned). He also induced grounders at nearly a 54% clip, allowing him to wipe out some of his mistakes with double plays.
Over his four most recent outings, however, Rodríguez surrendered 11 total runs (eight earned) over just 2.2 innings and struck out only three batters with five walks. His velocity was down as well, so it made sense for the Cubs to shelve him even if the shoulder issue is of zero concern. You can’t be too careful when you’re looking to a group of young pitchers to, uh, shoulder the load.
That’s where we get to Brailyn Márquez, who is finally throwing bullpens again after series of setbacks that have kept him from pitching since the last day of the 2020 season. That campaign was likewise disrupted by some conditioning issues after Márquez showed up to camp in less than the best shape and had to be ramped up slowly in his throwing program.
He contracted COVID early on this season and then had a shoulder strain that lingered, forcing the Cubs to put him in neutral for a while. Several rounds of imaging showed no structural damage, which is good, but farm director Matt Dorey told Gordon Wittenmyer of NBC Sports Chicago that the organization is handling the big lefty with kid gloves at this point.
That can and should change once Márquez proves he’s healthy, whether that’s with a stint in the Arizona Fall League or winter ball back home in the Dominican. The Cubs have gotten way more aggressive when it comes to letting their pitchers dictate their own developmental paths, but they’re not just going to take the guardrails off and let Márquez floor it right away.
If he’s able to get back to game action of some sort this year and can show up to camp healthy and in shape, however, there’s a possibility that he could make an impact in Chicago in 2022.
“For a young guy coming in making an impression, healthy, I think that’s what we’re trying to motivate him to get to,” Dorey said. “And I hope he comes back and goes out and earns a spot. But I think we’ll be conservative.”
That’s fine just as long as they’re not conservative with consensus top prospect Brennen Davis.