It’s said that to get what you’ve never had you have to do what you’ve never done, which might be true for Kyle Hendricks as he prepares for what could be his final season in a Cubs uniform. Coming off the worst two seasons of his career as struggles with command and mechanical consistency led to an alarming spike in home runs allowed, Hendricks plans to implement a Driveline-inspired throwing program aimed at increasing his velocity.
In their report for The Athletic, Sahadev Sharma and Patrick Mooney noted that Hendricks is still taking a break from throwing and should begin the program in early December. That’s a long layoff from his last start all the way back on July 5 as he builds back from a capsular tear in his shoulder that did not require surgery*. The focus in the meantime has been on increasing or regaining strength and athleticism in order to prepare himself for what is sure to be an intense winter regimen.
At the risk of grossly oversimplifying things, Driveline pushes the limits of physical performance through the use of weighted balls and various high-intent movement patterns. Suffice to say it’s a little different from doing yoga. Not that Hendricks has previously only participated in low-intensity training, it’s more that this new journey is about pushing the envelope rather than performing routine maintenance.
If previous workout changes are any indicator, this could end up being exactly what Hendricks needs to turn things around at age 33. His work with renowned performance coach Eric Cressey ahead of the 2020 season saw him turn in a 2.88 ERA and 3.13 xERA, both among the lowest totals of his career. Even more impressive, his 2.5% walk rate was nearly two points better than in any other season.
The results didn’t last, though, whether it was due to the taxation of that truncated season or a series of other issues that piled up over the last two years. Cressey was hired by the Yankees as their director of player health and performance in January of 2020, so maybe it’s a matter of Hendricks being unable to find someone to replace him. Whatever the reason, the former ace became someone Cubs fans didn’t necessarily want to see out on the mound every fifth day.
One other very notable shift in Hendricks’ performance during that ’20 season was his avoidance of the First Inning of Death. After pitching to a 1.50 ERA and 3.77 FIP that year, those numbers skyrocketed in the last two seasons. Hendricks had a 7.59 ERA with a 7.05 FIP in ’21 and a 6.19 ERA with a 6.74 FIP last season. Even if we account for the small sample of that short season, the differences are evident.
That piece in The Athletic notes how his delivery has become “less fluid and aggressive,” which is about more than generating less velocity. Not throwing with as much intent has a deleterious effect on pitches, even those that aren’t supposed to be thrown at high velocity. Especially those with lower intended velocity. Hendricks has never been a flamethrower by any stretch, but the velocity gap between his fastball and changeup has narrowed over time.
What’s really odd is that the fastball has dropped to an average of 86.7 mph while the change has increased a little to 80 mph. Though it may sound strange, backing off of a changeup and throwing it less aggressively can actually prevent the grip from killing spin and/or creating the desired shape. Nothing in the Statcast data suggests significant deviations in the spin rate or direction Hendricks is generating, but the decreased velo separation from his sinker removes a lot of what precious little margin for error he had in the first place.
Getting more athletic and bumping the fastball back up to 88-89 mph could yield big results, which would be great for a Cubs team that is likely viewing any significant impact from Hendricks as gravy. That may sound a little harsh for someone who was once a viable staff ace with production that rivaled some of the game’s greats, but Hendricks has looked like anything but that guy over the last two years.
If this plan works and the Cubs can add a top-line pitcher via trade or free agency, the rotation could be dangerous. The most important thing for Hendricks is to buy back some of that leeway he’s lost over the last few years so that he can still make the occasional mistake without seeing it turned around 400 feet in the opposite direction.
Maybe if it all works out, he can buck recent trends and run it back with the Cubs. He’s already one of their few key players to have signed any kind of extension at all, might as well try to make it two.
Ed. note: I didn’t include my bigger concerns initially and didn’t want to put out a whole new piece for fear of appearing alarmist, but there’s plenty of reason to worry about Hendricks’ ability to come back without surgery. Though a Google search is hardly adequate to provide me with enough knowledge to question doctors’ decisions, looking up “capsular tear shoulder” immediately produces a study indicating that all professional baseball players with this type of injury eventually required surgery.
Only five players were studied, however, and the results were published in 2014 with the caveat that “This entity is poorly understood and not well characterized.” Other articles on the same topic indicate that either open or arthroscopic surgery is required in most cases. Such a procedure would leave the patient immobilized in a sling for six weeks followed by 4-6 months of physical therapy.
The aforementioned study found that only four of the patients were able to return to pre-injury levels with a mean recovery time of 13.3 from a range of 8-18 months. So even if Hendricks had been really aggressive with surgery back in July, it’s possible he’d miss the season rehabbing. There’s also the possibility that he’d never return at all.
Putting it like that almost makes it seem like this revamped throwing program is a last-ditch effort at an all-or-nothing solution that could either revive or end Hendricks’ career. If he ends up having to go under the knife this winter, he’s almost certain to miss the 2023 season and will have a really tough time landing anything other than a minor league deal in ’24.
Rather than end on a big downer, I need to mention the potential that the capsular tear in question is not severe enough to warrant surgery and that rest and rehab will do the trick. While it’s nowhere near a direct comp, Nolan Ryan pitched in 1986 with a partially-torn UCL and consulted with Dr. James Andrews about his options, which included surgery. Ryan decided to let it scar over and most thought he’d have one more year left in him.
He went on to pitch for seven more years.