Kyle Hendricks Aiming to Increase Velo This Winter as Contract Year Looms

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 shoulder fatigue 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.

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