Hype or Hope? Justin Steele’s Ace Turn, Cody Bellinger’s Hot Start, Kyle Hendricks’ Increased Velo

In the interest of full disclosure, this is one of those pieces you put together when you’re running on mental fumes and need to find something to prime the pump. Free time has been at an even greater premium than usual, so it’s all I can do to even edit other posts and get the lineup out there each day. With that in mind, I wanted to look at three players whose recent success may be drawing a bit of skepticism.

Cody Bellinger‘s bounceback

I didn’t expect to be covering this topic again just yet, but it felt necessary to do so after Michael Canter put the ball in my court with a bullet in The Rundown. Former GM Jim Bowden has somehow maintained writing privileges over at The Athletic for years now, and it’s more or less like a long-form series of social media comments. While he’s actually pretty decent when it comes to contract projections, his other takes routinely sail well wide of the mark.

So when he said not to believe Bellinger’s strong performance out of the gate, my hackles rose a bit. Then I saw the rationale and felt compelled to counter. Bowden merely regurgitated — or ralphed — the same old trope that since the Dodgers couldn’t fix him, there’s no way Bellinger suddenly figured things out. There’s zero mention of injuries and other changes, like hiring a personal trainer for the first time and trying Pilates, just the same uninformed commentary with no real evidence.

You know, like actually breaking down a swing that appears to be significantly different from how it looked in those down years Bellinger suffered through. He also suffered through shoulder surgery and a stress fracture in his leg from 2020-22, the results of which almost certainly hampered his offensive output and led to compensatory mechanical changes that threw him out of whack.

I’m not saying Bellinger will maintain a 152 wRC+, but I think he’ll easily maintain well above-average production at the plate and in the field. Bowden says “his holes at the plate are still there,” adding that his tendency to tinker with his swing will eventually lead to slumps.

It’s still too early to say for sure, but the evidence so far suggests Bellinger is actually handling lower-inside pitches better than in the recent past. He’s striking out less than ever, so even a little regression will yield big improvements from his down seasons. As for tinkering, that was largely a function of trying to rediscover the muscle memory that had been lost due to injury.

Perhaps he’s just taking Prevagen, which anyone who’s watched the Cubs this season already knows features a key ingredient actually found in jellyfish. Whatever the case, I don’t think Ralph knows what he’s talking about on this one.

Kyle Hendricks‘ big fastball

The Professor hasn’t pitched in the big leagues since last July after being shut down with a capsular tear in his shoulder and opting for extended rehab rather than surgery that could have ended his career. In addition to getting stronger and changing his mechanics, the Driveline-inspired throwing program Hendricks employed was aimed at increasing his fastball velocity.

“I don’t think he’s ever going to be the guy that throws 95, right,” David Ross said. “But, when he’s been at his best, he’s got a 9 in front of that number, that miles per hour, and can be really good in that.”

Hendricks was actually touching 90 mph during bullpens and simulated games in Arizona, which is notable because he hasn’t averaged more than 87.8 since the 2016 season. He’s been right at 87 mph over the last two seasons combined, though, so getting a few extra ticks now and again isn’t necessarily a huge development.

The real difference will come if he’s able to further separate his fastball from his changeup, which he was actually throwing harder in 2021 and ’22 than he had in any of the four previous seasons. The Cubs have a temporary rotation spot open with Jameson Taillon on the IL as he deals with a groin strain, but Ross will have to find a way to balance things after that.

As such, Hendricks will need to prove he can keep the ball in the yard and compete deeper into games in order to maintain a starting spot moving forward. I tend to believe we will see a little more velo from him, but it won’t mean a thing if the changeup isn’t working.

Justin Steele as an ace

After another excellent performance Tuesday night against the Padres, Steele took another step toward gaining legitimacy beyond Cubdom. I mean, sure, a lot of people have seen that he’s pretty good. But what we’re talking about here is one of the best pitchers in baseball over more than just a handful of starts. Since July 22 of last year (12 starts), Steele’s 1.07 ERA is the lowest in baseball among 162 pitchers who’ve logged at least 50 innings.

His 28.5% strikeout rate ranks 18th and his 53% grounder rate is 13th, putting him in pretty strong company in both categories. By dodging barrels and keeping the ball in the yard, Steele has been able to avoid being stung by the walks he gives up at a higher rate than other elite pitchers. And he’s doing it more or less with just two pitches, though his cut-ride fastball is not your typical four-seam.

We’re really seeing now what former farm director Matt Dorey knew when he compared Steele to fellow lefty Brailyn Márquez back in early 2020. That seemed like heresy at the time, but oh how the turntables.

“The upside is legitimate as a left-hander that’s really athletic with a great arm,” Matt Dorey, the Cubs’ senior director of player development, said Sunday at Cubs Convention. “He has a chance for two plus pitches, the changeup has a chance to come as well…

“I’m really excited for Justin,” Dorey said. “He’s worked his tail off and he’s such a competitive kid, and he’s a left-hander with that kind of stuff. You talk about Marquez, but Steele’s stuff isn’t that much different if you look at it.”

Even if he eventually gives up more than two earned runs in a game this season, it’s pretty safe to say Steele is going to remain a fixture at the top of the Cubs’ rotation for a little while.

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