Voodoo Child: Hendricks Hexes Reds, Draws Maddux Comps

Kyle Hendricks isn’t a physically imposing pitcher. He possesses neither a 95 mph fastball nor a curve that moves six hours in sixty feet, six inches. He doesn’t have the sure-thing tag next to his name and he never has. Yet somehow, Hendricks has performed incredibly well in his first major league season, albeit a short one.

If, that is, you consider 7-2 with a 2.28 ERA and 43 strikeouts to just 14 walks performing well. He was no different Wednesday night, going 7 innings with 1 earned run, 4 K’s and no walks. And while there might be just a little luck involved (at 3.22, his FIP stands nearly a full run higher than his ERA), Hendricks’ success is more a result of guile and approach than good breaks and fantastic catches at the wall by Chris Coghlan.

Remember when I wrote about Edwin Jackson’s issues with velocity and control? You could click the link if you like, but the long and short of it is that Jackson’s fastball has slowed down but his auxiliary pitches really haven’t. There’s no trickeration in his delivery, so hitters don’t really have to adjust much to the change even if they’re sitting dead red.

Hendricks, on the other hand, has got a significant difference between the velos of his fastball (which he throws nearly 63% of the time) and changeup (17.6%). At an average speed of only 88 mph, the heater is really more of a luke-warmer, but it’s still more than 9 ticks faster than the change (78.6). Hendricks’ 3rd-favorite pitch (11.6%) is the cutter, which he slices at 84.9 mph. Finally, you’ve got the slow curve, trundling toward the hitter on 8% of Hendricks’ offerings at just over 76 mph.

Most guys who don’t throw hard enough to even earn a ticket on the Dan Ryan would be rawked (you can’t see me, but I’ve got my Dio horns up and I’m banging my head right now) by major league hitters. But as Cubs color man Jim Deshaies pointed out, it’s the location of the pitches that really throws hitters off. Hendricks nibbles at the zone, making strikes look like balls and balls like strikes. He pitches to contact, but by keeping the ball out of the prime hitting zone, very little of that contact is solid.

And while most of us saw little of Kyle Hendricks prior to this summer, he’s been doing this for years. In 90 minor league appearances over parts of four seasons, Hendricks compiled a 2.69 ERA with 386 strikeouts and only 81 walks. The control that has served him so well with the Cubs also allowed him to avoid being hit hard in the minors, as he gave up only 21 home runs in just over 452 innings pitched.

But enough of that logic business; perhaps the source of Hendricks’ power is more supernatural in nature. Maybe some of the black magic they’ve been using in St. Louis finally made it’s way north and settled in the Cubs rookie, making him a regular voodoo child. After all, he’s been standing up next to mountains of men and chopping them down with the edge of his hand ever since he came up.

So call it luck or call it necromancy, just don’t call it Maddux-like. Cubs broadcaster Len Kasper made that grievous mistake just one day after “jinxing” Jake Arrieta’s no hitter. Maybe Kasper’s the one with the voodoo hoodoo; if last night’s Twitter witch-hunt was any indication, Cubs fans on social media sure seems to think so.

I know it’s fun to join the rabble, but let’s all put down the torches and pitchforks for just a moment and think about the root of what Len was saying. He’s not asserting that Hendricks is or will be as good as Maddux, merely that the kid pitches in much the same way the Hall of Famer did.

I know that when it comes to comps and putting two names together in the same sentence, we run the risk of having our intentions misconstrued. As someone who’s been blasted for his unrepentant pedantry, I feel well-qualified to speak on this subject. Truth be told, I think it’s the accuracy of Kasper’s words that got all those panties in a twist; he said what a lot of people were afraid to, just like when he’s talked about in-progress no hitters in the past.

They’re afraid because words have power, and saying that Hendricks works like Maddux might actually create expectations for the kid and the Cubs that simply can’t be lived up to. As fans, many of us have been burned so many times by this team that to allow our hopes to be lifted only invites preemptive emotional pain.

But dammit, that’s got to stop. Would it be crazy to say that a rookie is as good as perhaps the greatest control pitcher of all time? Absolutely. But what’s wrong with having a little hope, or with just taking someone at their word and agreeing that, yeah, this kid approaches the game like Maddux did?

I get that you may be afraid that if too many of us start thinking it and saying it, the legerdemain will vanish in the poof of a flash pot and we’ll be left with just another Rich Hill (who did have a nasty 12-6 yakker). But guess what? Hendricks isn’t the product of some kind of witchcraft or wizardry and he’s not getting by with the help of a rabbit’s foot and a horseshoe.

So it’s okay to talk about him without fear that our words will pull back the curtain of his Cubs career to reveal the secrets of his magic. We don’t have to tiptoe around with platitudinous talk of caution and low ceilings if the only reason for doing so is to avoid blowback from the mouth-breathing masses. This kid could well be an anchor for this team. Kyle Hendricks isn’t a great thrower, but he’s a really good pitcher with a great mind for the game.

If only we could say the same for the rest of us.

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