In Hendricks and Russell, Cubs Boast Pair of Unlikely Home Split Leaders

As trade and roster speculation were running rampant Monday afternoon, someone pointed out to me the need to bolster the bullpen after Sunday’s craziness that saw relievers pitch 9 innings. I replied that it didn’t matter because Kyle Hendricks was going to throw a complete-game shutout later that evening. A few hours and 123 pitches later, I looked like a genius. Or at least less of a fool than usual.

In today’s world of strict pitch counts, the century mark has become the de facto line of demarcation when it comes to the end of a starter’s day. As such, I was a little worried about my prediction when Hendricks was at 108 after 8 innings of work. What we need to realize, though, is that every pitcher and every situation is different. To use dimensionless numbers is to deny the human element and the pace of the game, which is both a mistake and a disservice.

Hendricks isn’t what you’d call a max-effort pitcher and he really didn’t have to face many high-stress situations Monday night. Consider that he faced only four batters with a runner on second base and three batters with  runner on third (there’s some overlap there), but that none of those situations occurred after the 3rd inning. And with his offense having already spotted him a pair of early scores, Hendricks was working with a lead after the 1st inning.

Also of note is the efficiency with which the soft-tossing assassin worked in the latter two-thirds of the contest. After laboring through the first three innings, throwing 54 pitches (18/inning) and facing some potential run-scoring situations, Hendricks set the cruise control and absolutely shut the Marlins down. He needed only 69 pitches (11.5/inning) over six very nice frames to close the game. The four-batter 6th inning was the only one of the last six in which the Marlins sent more than three men to the plate and nine of their 19 batters in that stretch saw three or fewer pitches.

What I’m driving at here is that the pitch count doesn’t come close to telling the story of the game. Hendricks was locked in and his defense was nothing short of spectacular behind him, making perfect plays and keeping the Marlins from getting on base and/or advancing. As a result of the shutout, Hendricks’ season ERA dropped from 2.39 down to 2.22, good for third in baseball behind Clayton Kershaw and Madison Bumgarner.

The skeptics may point out that The Professor’s 3.32 FIP is more than a full run higher than his ERA, about a 33% difference. Of course, those same folks would probably want to take note of MadBum’s 30% higher FIP. And then I would counter with the argument that one of those guys is his staff’s ace while the other is a number five starter. Yeah, yeah, semantics and whatnot.

Many bristled at the early comparisons of Hendricks to fellow cerebral pitcher Greg Maddux, and many continue to be put off by them. For what it’s worth, I think they’re perfectly valid, at least in the sense that the former does remind me of the latter. Sometimes we just get so caught up in wanting everything to fit within our own definitions of what a comp is that we can’t sit back and say, “Huh, I can see why you’d think that.” In other words: Lighten up, Francis.

Okay, where was I? Ah yes, the ERA thing. Hendricks has been stellar overall, but his performance at Wrigley has been nothing short of ace material. In 75.1 innings pitched at home, Hendricks is holding opposing hitters to a .200/.252/.259 slash line and has compiled a Major League-best 1.19 ERA. He has struck out 64 and walked only 13, has allowed only 54 hits and 13 runs. That’s pretty good.

But Hendricks isn’t the only unexpected league leader when it comes to home stats. With a two-RBI single in the 1st inning Monday, Addison Russell moved into first place in the NL with 47 driven in (65 total). He’s actually tied for third in the majors behind David Ortiz (59) and Mike Napoli (50), with Mookie Betts sharing Russell’s total. That’s not bad company, but it’s even more impressive when you look at the RBI leaders and realize that very few of them spend most of their time hitting at the bottom of the order. Actually, none of them do.

On a team that lists Jake Arrieta, Jon Lester, Kris Bryan, Anthony Rizzo, and Joe Smith among its luminaries, having Kyle Hendricks and Addison Russell atop ERA and RBI lists this deep in the season is a bit of a surprise. It’s also a testament to the depth and quality of the roster, proof that the Cubs can and do get contributions from everyone. And the great part is that neither of these guys has even hit his prime yet.

I’m not sure these stats speak to anything more grand for either Hendricks or Russell. In fact, I’m sure someone could point out that the numbers are driven by situational anomalies and that they’re indicative of either impending regression or perhaps underperformance away from Wrigley. Somebody’s always got to pee in the Cheerios. I, on the other hand, found this stuff fun and interesting and just wanted to share it with both of you.

And I wanted to receive praise for calling my shot on the Hendricks CGSO.

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