Why Cubs named Kyle Hendricks the 2020 Opening Day starter

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Maddie Lee
·5 min read
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Kyle Hendricks was surrounded by his fellow starting pitchers when he heard the news: He was named the Cubs Opening Day starter for the first time in his career.

"Just a really cool experience for me just to be able to say that it's happened," Hendricks said Thursday. "But it was even cooler to have those other guys in the room with me and congratulating me for my first one. Especially guys like Jon (Lester) that have been around so long and somebody that I've looked up to for years on this team and learned so much from him about how to do it, how to go about it the right way."

Hendricks got the job over Lester, who started four of the Cubs' past five Opening Days but focused on preserving his arm during the MLB shutdown. Even more notably, Hendricks won the job over Yu Darvish, who seemed poised to be the Opening Day starter before the coronavirus pandemic closed Spring Training. Hendricks has been the Cubs' most consistent starting pitcher over the past five years. Now, he has the accolade of Opening Day starter to go with that accomplishment.  

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"He's the one that's ready," Cubs manager David Ross said, adding that he'd been leaning toward Hendricks as the Opening Day starter for a while during training camp but didn't want to rush the decision.

As Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer put it, Hendricks made the front office "look incredibly good" after the team acquired Hendricks from Texas in a last-minute 2012 trade-deadline deal, along with infielder Christian Villanueva, for Ryan Dempster.

"Ultimately he's gotten better and better and better each year," Hoyer said. "The pitcher that we acquired, he's very different now. And he's different because of the work he's put in and because of the person he is."

Hendricks made his major league debut in July 2014. That year, the Cubs (73-89) had the worst record in the NL Central and were tied for the third-worst record in the National League. But Hendricks went 7-2 in 13 starts.

Then in 2016, his 2.13 ERA was the lowest in baseball. Hendricks slid into the Cy Young conversation, but Max Scherzer won the NL award with a staggering 20-7 record.

RELATED: How Cubs' Kyle Hendricks stacks up against rotation mates since 2014 

"When I first got here (in 2015), the narrative was he couldn't go through the lineup three times," Ross said, "which makes me laugh now just to see the way he's grown."

Now that Hendricks can locate pitches to all four quadrants and has added to his repertoire a breaking ball and a four-seam fastball with some movement. Now that he's started Game 7 of the World Series.

Now that a large part of how Hendricks claimed the Opening Day starting job had to do with how many innings he's ready to throw.

"I told you guys a long time ago," Ross said, "it's going to matter who's stretched out and can go deep."

Hendricks stretched out his pitch count to 70 in a scoreless intrasquad outing Tuesday. For reference, Darvish left the same game after throwing about 60 pitches.

In a season with a shortened training camp, pitch count becomes especially important. The Cubs are preparing their bullpen to serve as a middle-inning buffer, especially at the beginning of the season. Hendricks, however, is far enough along to stay on the mound late into games, as long as all his pitches are working.

Hendricks plans on throwing about 85 pitches in his next start, which will likely be the Cubs' exhibition game against the White Sox on Sunday. That will put him on track for up to 100 pitches on Opening Day.

"When you get in that regular season, you've got to see how the game goes and take it from there," Hendricks said. "You're trying to win at all costs, especially with as few games as we have."

The shutdown, which Hendricks attacked with regular simulated innings, also gave him a chance to work on his curveball.

"Right now, it's the best my curveball's ever felt," he said.

Hendricks' changeup is what makes him such a deceptive pitcher. But he said he's becoming more comfortable using his curveball in different counts and moving it around the strike zone.

"I think it's going to open up a lot in my game," he said.

After Ross told the pitching staff Hendricks would be the Opening Day starter, Ross called him back in to talk about the news one-on-one.

"You know him," Ross said. "He's nonchalant, no big deal. It may have been a bigger deal to me to tell him than it was for him to tell the news."

That composure has been a hallmark of Hendrick's consistency. It's only fitting that in one of the wildest lead-ups to a season in baseball history, low-key Hendricks is the one to take the mound to kick off the Cubs' schedule.

 

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Why Cubs named Kyle Hendricks the 2020 Opening Day starter originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago

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