Two Chicago Cubs pitchers separated by a generation, yet a mirror-image of each other: Kyle Hendricks and Greg Maddux.
His opening day stat line says it all: 9 innings pitched, 9 strikeouts, 0 walks, and 3 hits allowed.
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In a day and age when everybody throws in the upper 90s, Hendricks pitches with an antiquated style – a style of pitching used in the 1970s and 80s. Instead of using high velocity, he gets batters out with heavy sinkers, deceitful changeups, and looping curveballs.
He’s a different kind of ace. Think about other ace pitchers in today’s game: Max Scherzer, Gerrit Cole, and Jacob deGrom. They’re flamethrowers. Scherzer throws 95 mph, Cole chucks heaters at 97, and deGrom launches missiles at 98.
But not Kyle Hendricks. His average fastball crosses the plate at 88.
Hendricks doesn’t throw hard. But he makes up for it with precision. He paints corners like Sherwin Williams. He dissects the strike zone like a surgeon.
He’s just as dominant as an ace who throws 97. Actually, he’s even more dominant than an ace who throws 97, because he puts the ball exactly where he wants to. Pitching is like real estate. It’s all about location.
And pitchers who throw in the upper 90s usually don’t have the same kind of control that Hendricks does. They just fling the ball towards the plate and hope it ends up in the strike zone.
Last week’s pitching matchup between Hendricks and Brewers pitcher Brandon Woodruff is a perfect example of that. Woodruff fits the bill as a velocity hound, which is today’s model for pitching. Every team seeks velocity. And that’s what Woodruff brings to the table. Consistent smoke. Upper 90’s all game long.
But Woodruff’s heat wasn’t as effective as Hendricks’ guile. Woodruff threw only five innings – compared to Hendricks nine – and made one big mistake that cost Milwaukee the game. On a 3-1 count to Ian Happ, Brewers catcher Omar Narvaez set up outside, and Woodruff missed his spot by a country mile, leaving a 96-mph fastball in the middle of the plate. Happ deposited the pitch into the right-field stands, and that was the difference in the game.
That scenario illustrates why Kyle Hendricks is so successful. Hitters today are used to high velocity. They see it every day. What they don’t see every day? A crafty pitcher like Hendricks, weaving the ball inside and outside.
The Brewers batters looked mighty uncomfortable against Hendricks. Hendricks held them in the palm of his hand, simply toying with their timing. He struck Christian Yelich out with a front-door changeup, starting the pitch at his hip and fading it back to the plate. Yelich slumped his head and walked to the dugout with a look of disbelief on his face, as if to say “this guy throws 86, how on earth did he strike me out?”.
That’s a common gripe for batters facing Hendricks. Think about a conventional uncomfortable at-bat. What comes to mind? A high-90s flamethrower, right?
It doesn’t have to be that way.
Hendricks provides an equally as uncomfortable at-bat in a different way. He’s a master of movement and control. In fact, last year he averaged 87 mph on his fastball, which was the lowest among qualified starters. But he ranked near the top of the league in exit velocity, at 86.5, which means he was one of the best at inducing weak contact.
“He’s as close to Greg Maddux as the current game will allow anybody to be,” Matt Vasgersian said during ESPN’s broadcast of the Cubs-Brewers game last Friday.
That’s exactly the comparison I thought of as Hendricks cruised through the Brewers lineup. Just like Hendricks, Greg Maddux dominated by inducing weak contact. His two-seam fastball ran like a marathon and froze left-handed batters, as it started at the hip and tailed back to the inside corner. He befuddled hitters with witty pitch sequences, using pinpoint control and masterful pitch movement.
The same can be said about Hendricks, who’s delivery and stuff imitates Maddux. Even their statistics mimic each other. Hendricks owns a career 3.11 ERA and 3.8 strikeout-to-walk ratio, while Maddux sported a 3.16 ERA and a 3.4 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
But that’s not all. Kyle Hendricks and Greg Maddux also share the same nickname: “The Professor”.
Hendricks earned the moniker because of his artful pitching and uncanny resemblance to Maddux. The fact is Hendricks and Maddux share numerous similarities – mechanics, stuff, statistics, and even a nickname. Maddux is a Hall-of-Famer, and he might be the best pitcher of all time.
Because of their likeness, Hendricks has the same kind of potential.
He proves that it’s not all about velocity. You don’t have to throw 100 mph to be successful. Hendricks is the epitome of a pitcher. Most guys today are throwers, not pitchers. Velocity without control means nothing. Major League batters could hit a missile if it was thrown down-the-middle.
What really matters most is control, and messing with a hitter’s timing. That’s what Kyle Hendricks does best.
He’s a modern-day Greg Maddux.
He’s the professor, and school is in session.