By Jason P. Skoda
PEORIA, Ariz. — On the outside, it looks like the same Kyle Hendricks from a year ago. Take a closer look, and everything has changed.
Hendricks was a question mark for the Chicago Cubs heading into last season. Then he went 16-8 with a major league-best 2.13 ERA, helping the Cubs to their first World Series title since 1908.
No more anonymity for the young right-hander with precise stuff and easygoing demeanor. Heading into his fourth year in the majors, he is a key figure in Chicago’s hopes for a second straight championship.
“It’s a little weird,” Hendricks said. “It’s definitely different from this time last year. Not nearly as much hype for me. Things have changed a little, but it’s all for the good.”
Hendricks said he is just trying to keep everything simple as he tries to build off last year’s success, and he appears to be progressing quite nicely so far. He struck out four while pitching three scoreless innings in Friday’s 11-10 loss to Seattle.
“All my pitches last year had depth, had angle, and I was hitting all my spots,” Hendricks said after his second start of the spring. “So that’s really my focus now, making sure all my pitches are down in the zone, with good depth, and I’m seeing it so far. So I think I’m on the right track.”
The 27-year-old Hendricks is 31-17 with a 2.92 ERA in 76 games with Chicago since he was acquired in a July 2012 trade with Texas for Ryan Dempster.
The Dartmouth grad also had success in the postseason last year, going 1-1 with a 1.42 ERA in five starts. He beat Los Angeles Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw in the NLCS clincher for Chicago, and also started Game 7 of the World Series.
“His confidence is soaring,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said this spring. “It began to soar last year. You can see it conversationally now.
“I’m really confident that he will, based on his confidence, be able to replicate in a lot of ways what he did last year. I really enjoyed my conversations with him because I can just see he feels good about himself.”
Jon Lester, who will start on opening day for Chicago, said the key for Hendricks is to keep doing what he does rather than trying to outdo last year’s season.
“The biggest thing that will get you in trouble is trying to top that,” Lester said. “What did he finish with 2.1 or 2.2 (ERA)? For me, I’ve always tried to stay with that 200-inning goal. Make every start. Make 200 innings. I know I’ll be somewhere around where I normally am.
“Then you’re going to have years where you have your butt kicked. You’re kind of doing the same stuff, and you don’t really know why.”
Hendricks, who has been compared to Hall of Famer Greg Maddux, relies on movement and hitting his spots with his two-seam fastball and changeup that is tough on both left- and right-handed hitters.
“Is he going to have a 2.1?” Lester said. “Who knows? We have a really good defense. That saved a lot of runs. I’d like to see him get 200 innings. I’d like to see all of our guys make every start and try to do that whole group thing again.”