A teacher represents the most critical influencer in a classroom. For the Cubs, it’s no different.
Yu Darvish, who’s on the mend with right tricep tendonitis, could begin throwing off a mound again next weekend. 2016 NL MVP Kris Bryant returned to the Cubs’ lineup on Friday after he was shelved with a strained right shoulder for nearly three weeks. Anthony Rizzo seemed to rediscover his swing in San Diego following a 4-for-32 stretch to kick off July.
But with Kyle “The Professor” Hendricks reestablishing his brand to end the first half, he’s proving to be the most important piece for a Cubs’ second-half run — and a deeper push into October.
Before his last two starts, the 6-foot-3, 190-pound righty looked nothing like the 2016 NL Cy Young candidate. He amassed a 4.27 ERA and 4.82 FIP — which measures a pitcher’s run prevention aside from his defense behind him (strikeouts, walks, hit-by-pitches and home runs allowed) — the 10th-highest among National League starters. His home run to fly-ball ratio (HR/FB) also sat at 17.0 percent — the highest of his career.
Kyle Hendricks, 7Ks on Changeups (of his 8 total Ks last night). pic.twitter.com/UAnJOnc8RM
— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) July 10, 2018
Hendricks has begun reverting back to his old self since then despite a small sample size, reducing his fly-ball rate by 7.0 percentage points and increasing his line drive rate by 7.7 percentage points over those two games. His groundball rate stayed roughly the same, hovering around 46 percent. He allowed a combined two earned runs with an 11:1 strikeout-to-walk ratio in those outings as well.
Jon Lester‘s decline appears inevitable, too, putting pressure on another Cubs’ starter to step up in the second half.
Although Lester’s 2.58 ERA is the 11th-lowest among major-league starters, his 4.34 FIP is just the start of his concerning peripherals. He’s striking out 7.09 per nine innings pitched, trailing his 8.97 K/9IP from a season ago. It’s his lowest mark since 2008 (6.50). He’s walking 3.30 per nine innings as well — his highest BB/9IP since 2011 (3.52).
Moreover, the Cubs boast the second-best defensive efficiency (.727) in baseball, steering the 34-year-old to a 2.53 BABIP — tied for the 17th-lowest among starters.
Don’t kid yourself. The organization isn’t in the market for a starter. Cubs’ president of baseball operations Theo Epstein has reiterated on countless occasions that their solutions are already in the clubhouse.
His message last season was the team wouldn’t be in the market for a rental, and they acquired former White Sox starter Jose Quintana, who possessed three-and-a-half years of control left at the time. Epstein will likely stay true to his word even if the Cubs’ rivals are dealing around the trade deadline.
“You can’t get reactive in this game,” Epstein said on WSCR 670-AM. “You end up making moves that might feel good in the moment or make you feel like you responded, but then you look up with the benefit of perspective and realize you really cost yourself in the long run.”
Their offense — led by NL MVP candidate Javier Baez — isn’t an issue. The bullpen usage is. Hendricks has reached the sixth inning in just 8 of 19 starts, and Cubs’ starters have combined to tie for the fifth-fewest innings pitched (503.0) among major-league rotations.
How long can they rely on reliever Steve Cishek (1.88 ERA) to dominate when he’s on the verge of topping a career-high 69.2 innings pitched from 2013? Not very. Epstein could aim to acquire another bullpen arm, but an improvement from their starters would also help solve those woes.
Hendricks has excelled in the second half over his four-plus years in the majors. He owns a 2.61 career ERA and 3.20 FIP during that stretch compared to his 3.92 career ERA and 4.57 FIP in the first half.
Put on your professor glasses, Kyle. You’re up.
Follow Eli on Twitter: @EliHershkovich — Feature Photo Credit: Getty Images