Kyle Hendricks Talks Pitching

Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports

Kyle Hendricks has long been lauded as a cerebral pitcher, and for good reason. Nicknamed “The Professor,” the 34-year-old Chicago Cubs right-hander not only has an economics degree from Dartmouth College, he relies far more on guile than gas. The antithesis of your prototypical power arm, Hendricks subsists with a heater that sits in the second percentile for velocity. Moreover, he’s no spin monster in terms of breaking stuff. As he’ll readily admit, his four-pitch arsenal is sans a plus breaking ball.

His 2024 season is off to a slow start. Over five turbulent outings, Hendricks has surrendered 37 hits, including a league-worst eight round-trippers, seven walks and 28 runs across just 21 innings. Adjustments are in order, but that’s nothing new for the righty. An ability to adjust accordingly has gone a long way toward his career ledger, which coming into this year included an 84 ERA- and a 3.80 FIP, as well as stingy walk and home run rates. When push comes to shove, Hendricks has proven more than capable of outsmarting big league hitters.

Hendricks discussed his evolution as a pitcher and his overall M.O. on the mound during spring training.


David Laurila: How have analytics impacted your evolution as a pitcher?

Kyle Hendricks: “Analytics have changed a lot throughout my career, and I’ve had to learn a lot about them. I still don’t know a whole lot, to be honest with you. We have such a good support group behind me on the pitching side, and I rely heavily on them. I’ll go through all my work, throw my bullpens, etcetera, and they’re breaking down all the data, what everything looks like. So, the most it’s probably helped me with is consistency — consistency of pitch shapes, and action on my pitches.

“From there, I’ve always been a guy searching for a better curveball and how to spin a ball better. It definitely can help, just looking at the shape of my curveball, the spin overall, the spin efficiency. Things like that. Those have helped me put a good visual to what I’m searching for in a breaking ball.”

Laurila: It’s interesting to hear you say that you don’t know a lot. Zack Wheeler recently told me that [Phillies pitching coach] Caleb Cotham was his pitching nerd.

Hendricks: “I love that. It’s kind of the same for me. I don’t know if it’s from how I came up, but my pitching philosophy is to try to keep my mental state as simple as possible. I’m not a stuff guy. I’m command based. I’m commanding the baseball, trying to keep the ball on the bottom of the zone, move it in and out, up and down, and changing speeds back and forth. Throughout that whole process, I’m trying to read swings, seeing what guys are trying to do against me. So, in game, it’s all pitching focused. Outside the game, like I said, I’m relying on the staff behind me. They present me the information. I couldn’t tell you what my horizontal or vertical movements are.

“I honestly don’t know my metrics. But I do know when they get off my normal, or if they get inconsistent, and what I have to bring them back to. That’s mostly from feel and sight, and from how it’s coming out of my hand. And at the end of the day, the hitters tell me everything I need to know. How they’re taking a swing at something — a bad swing, a good swing, making good contact, making bad contact — that’s telling me everything I need to know about the pitches I’m throwing.

“If I’m making bad pitches and getting hit, most of the time it just looks flat. There’s not much depth or late action. It’s maybe moving early — it’s moving all the way to the plate — instead of tracking on lane and then moving late. Those are things you see from throwing over and over and over. You’ll see how the catcher catches a certain ball. You’ve seen so many pitches coming out of your hand that you see the right action when it’s right, and the wrong action when it’s wrong.”

Laurila: Having pitches squared up obviously isn’t as simple as getting the wrong action. There is location. There is sequencing. You might be tipping…

Hendricks: “True. There are so many things that go into it. And yeah, tipping is a huge one. A lot of guys do it. Sequencing is another big one. Being able to break down exactly what went wrong, and when, is honest self-evaluation. That’s one of the hardest things to do in our game. We’re always searching for that — the honest self-evaluation of what exactly was done right and done wrong. At the end of the day, these are all pieces to a puzzle. You use them all in conjunction and try to paint this whole picture of what your game is.”

Laurila: Has the way you sequence evolved?

Hendricks: “Definitely. It evolves based on the hitters, whatever the hitters are telling me. When I first came up, I was very stubborn at the bottom of the zone, because I’m a sinker-changeup kind of guy who doesn’t have a lot of velocity. After my first or second year, I started throwing up in the zone more, and throwing inside more. That opened up so much more for my game. So yeah, it’s continually evolving. Day to day, year to year… I mean if you face a team for a second time in a season, things are going change in that way. But really, I try to use the aggressiveness of a hitter against him, as well as the fundamentals of pitching. In my mind, that’s getting strike one, staying ahead of guys, and keeping the pitch count down.”

Laurila: What have you learned about how certain pitches of yours play best?

Hendricks: “Not too much, although when I first came up, I threw my changeup to one side of the plate. I’ve learned that it can play in different parts of the zone. I can throw it in to a righty. I can throw it outside. Moving it around on the plate is something I’d never done, and you can pigeonhole yourself if you’re only throwing something to one side. That’s always been my best pitch, and learning how and when to use it — that my changeup plays in certain situations — was huge for me.”

Laurila: When did you start throwing a changeup?

Hendricks: “Coming out of high school, I didn’t have a changeup. Once I got into college I started developing one — and especially once I got to the minor leagues. I became that sinker-changeup sort of guy, and again, searching for that spin.”

Laurila: Can you elaborate on chasing more spin?

Hendricks: “I’m really good at two-seam/changeup, pronating the ball to go that way. Only a few pitchers are really good at both pronating and supinating. It’s one of those things where I’m always searching for different ways to be more consistent spinning it better, spinning it tighter so that it looks like my fastball and changeup coming out of my hand, that’s it’s not popping out to where the hitter can see that. Everything has to look the same. That’s been a real focus of mine with the curveball, for sure.”

Laurila: For a full decade or more…

Hendricks: “Exactly. Forever. It’s a usable pitch, I’m just always trying to find how I can make it even more usable. At the end of the day, it’s always about using it to make my fastball and my changeup better.”

Laurila: Have you tried spiking your curveball?

Hendricks: “I’ve tried changing grips, yes. One thing I do is throw it with a spiked grip when I’m playing catch. I’m not getting in a pitching motion necessarily, but just a loose arm and getting it out front to spin it. I do that almost every day, to a degree. But once I get on the mound… I mean, I’ve messed around between a four-seam, a two-seam, and now I’m kind of halfway up on the horseshoe.

“I’m not spiking it on the mound, though. It feels like I don’t have a good enough grip on it. Playing catch with it teaches me to spin the baseball with my middle finger, but once I get on the mound my index finger is basically just laying on the ball. That feels more comfortable for me.”

Laurila: You throw a four-seam as well as a two-seam. Is that a pitch you’ve tweaked over the years, maybe looking to get a little more carry?

Hendricks: “Yes. My first two years in the big leagues, I actually threw a little cutter. I started throwing it almost too much. My velocity, which I didn’t have much of to lose in the first place, really started to dip. I also wasn’t able to stay behind the baseball as much and get a true four-seam spin when I was cutting the baseball. I abandoned that and got back to my throwing program, really staying behind the baseball, four-seam spinning it, staying true.

“That translated to the game, and now my four-seam basically always cuts a little. I try and stay through it — stay true and through my lane — but I think because of the cutter, and maybe because of my mechanics, it has this little cut to it. In the past, I tried to get rid of that, whereas now I just trust it. I know that’s just how my four-seam is — and I know that it plays. It gets a little bit of action, which gets it off the barrel a little bit.”

Laurila: You’re four-seam, two-seam, changeup, curveball. Have you ever thrown a slider?

Hendricks: “I kind of did when I first started in pro ball. I was drafted out of college, went to short-season, and was in the bullpen, only throwing one or two innings at a time. I worked on a little slider then. Honestly, in short-season you could throw a breaking ball in the dirt with two strikes, and most likely you were going to get a swing from a lot of guys. So, it was somewhat effective, but like I said, I’ve never been able to spin a ball great. I knew that as I went up to the higher levels it wasn’t going to be a usable pitch. That’s kind of where I started to use my changeup off of my fastball, and use the curveball as my spin, as best that I can.”

Laurila: How have you balanced evolving a pitcher with staying what’s worked for you over the years?

Hendricks: “That’s a very good question. It’s a tough balance. I would that say some of it depends on the amount of success you’ve had, obviously. If something has worked, that’s what you’re going to continue to follow until it doesn’t work. When you start having bad results — when things aren’t working out — then you have to pivot. For the most part, I’ve stayed true to who I am. At the same time, the number of little adjustments I’ve had to make have kept me in the game for as long as it’s been here, You won’t stay in the game if you just keep on doing the exact same things over and over. Reacting to what hitters are doing to me, changing my sequencing, changing my aggressiveness, or my first-pitch usage — it could come down to anything, At the end of the day, being unpredictable is huge for me.”

Laurila: How much longer are you hoping to play?

Hendricks: “As long as I can. I love baseball so much, and as soon as you’re out of the game, you’re out. It’s over. So, hopefully it’s years. I try not to put a timeline on it — I just try to take it one day at a time — but I literally want to play for as long as I can. I love pitching.”

David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.

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1 month ago

If I were ever to speak with the Prof I’d ask him if he knew (or to what extent cared) that in all of Cubs history only two players have spent their entire MLB playing career with the team, and he could be #3. I’ve never seen that angle considered outside of my social circles.

Given his comments about wanting to play as long as possible I assume he’d follow opportunities to to pitch regardless the team, so doubt we are looking at #3 here.

Appreciate the interview David!

**minimum ten seasons