How is Kyle Hendricks Still a ‘Surprise?’

hendricks-3-14I’ve made it pretty clear for the last three or so years that I have pretty high hopes for the Cubs’ young hurler Kyle Hendricks. In his most recent start, Hendricks took the next step in his evolution into one of the National League’s best pitchers, throwing six scoreless innings and lowering his ERA to 2.41, which was (at that point) the third-best in the National League (and baseball in general).

Since then, Mets starter Jacob deGrom has dropped his ERA to 2.38, and Hendricks currently sits in fourth place in baseball. In addition to his stellar ERA, Hendricks also owns the 10th-best WHIP in baseball at 1.022. All of this in only his third big league season.

But here’s the thing; this isn’t new. In 2014, at age 24, Hendricks started 13 games and pitched to a 2.46 ERA/1.083 WHIP/3.32 FIP stat line in 80.1 innings. Last year, in 32 starts, Hendricks put up a 3.95 ERA/1.161 WHIP/3.36 FIP in 180 innings. So, while the ERA jumped, the FIP indicates that there was some bad luck (or poor play behind him) at play. So why, this year, as Hendricks continues to pitch like a Top-5 pitcher in baseball is everyone so shocked?

The simple answer is that, despite pitching very well in each of his first two big league seasons, fans and the media at large managed to not just overlook him, but come to the conclusion that he was a bad pitcher. Looking back at some tweets from last season:

I could keep going, but you get the idea. Reporters and fans alike have been pretty convinced all along that Hendricks is somewhere between awful and mediocre. And frankly, I just can’t fathom why. Hendricks’ success this year didn’t come out of nowhere. Nor did his big league success.

Hendricks was drafted in the eighth round of the 2011 draft by the Texas Rangers, and promptly got down to the business of being a stud. In 2011, at the age of 21, Hendricks appeared in 20 games in relief for the Rangers’ Low-A affiliate, posting a 1.93 ERA before getting promoted directly to AA, where he started one game and pitched three innings, giving up a single run.

In 2012, he began the year with Texas’ High-A affiliate, starting 27 games and posting a 2.82 ERA before getting traded to the Cubs in exchange for Ryan Dempster. He remained in High-A Daytona for the Cubs, starting four games and posting a 4.24 ERA in 17 innings – the only time in his career to date that he’s posted an ERA over 4.

The following year, Hendricks posted a 1.85 ERA in 21 AA starts before getting promoted to AAA, where he started six more games and put up a 2.48 ERA. By 2014, he was on the cusp of the big leagues. He started 17 games in AAA Iowa, posting a 3.59 ERA/1.179 WHIP in 102.2 innings, before he got called up to the big leagues and stuck. At age 24.

Let’s not forget how impressive that, alone, is. At age 24 Hendricks joined a big-league team and was thrust directly into the starting rotation, where he didn’t just survive, he actually excelled. Yet, perhaps because he rarely caps 90 MPH on his fastball, or perhaps because he’s not very excitable on the mound, people seemed completely unimpressed. Herein lies the issue with evaluating a pitcher based solely on “what you see,” rather than what actually happens. He may not be exciting, but he’s damn effective.

Before the season, I wrote a story that mentioned Hendricks and made this comparison between two players:

Player 1
Year 1: 2.91 ERA/1.074 WHIP/7.4 H9/2.3 BB9 in 68 IP (12 Starts)
Year2: 3.16 ERA/1.155 WHIP/7.7 H9/2.7 BB9 in 159.1 IP (28 Starts)

Player 2
Year 1: 2.46 ERA/1.083 WHIP/8.1 H9/1.7 BB9 in 80.1 IP (13 Starts)
Year 2: 3.95 ERA/1.161 WHIP/8.3 H9/2.2 BB9 in 180 IP (32 Starts)

Those are stats for the first two full* seasons of the careers of two National League starting pitchers. One of them is Kyle Hendricks. The other is Stephen Strasburg. The asterisk next to full, by the way, is there because “Year 1” for Strasburg is 2010, while “Year 2” is actually 2012, because Strasburg made only five starts in 2011. I thought it more relevant to compare a full season’s stats.

The point, here, is that Strasburg’s big league exploits have been followed closely since he first joined the Nationals in 2010, and he’s rightly considered one of the best pitchers in the National League. Meanwhile, Hendricks has quietly put up incredibly similar numbers, and not only has he not received much attention for it, but fans (and some media) have been quite negative about him every step of the way.

It’s about time that people realize exactly what the Cubs have here – and that is a truly special pitcher. From the day he was drafted by the Rangers in 2011, he’s done nothing but put up fantastic numbers start after start, year after year.

Follow me on Twitter @MidwayJME