By Randy Richardson
Kyle Hendricks doesn’t get a lot of ooh’s and ah’s when he pitches. He just gets outs. And he’s doing that better than any pitcher in baseball.
After throwing seven innings of shutout ball Tuesday night against the Pirates at Wrigley Field, Hendricks (13-7) lowered his league-best ERA to 2.09. The closest pitcher to him is the Giants’ Madison Bungardner, at 2.49.
Now the Cy Young talk is picking up for the Cubs right-hander.
“It has to be Cy Young contention,” Cubs’ manager Joe Maddon said after Henricks’ performance Tuesday.
“Put the radar gun in your back pocket and look at what he’s doing. That has to be strong consideration.”
And it’s not just his manager noticing now.
A month ago, Hendricks’ 90 mph fastball barely registered on anyone’s radar.
At the start of August, ESPN’s Cy Young Predictor didn’t have Hendricks in its top 10. Now, he’s at No. 5, trailing two of his teammates, Jake Arrieta (No. 1) and John Lester (No. 4), and the Nats’ Max Scherzer and the Dodgers’ Kenley Jansen, Nos. 2 and 3, respectively.
Quite an impressive feat for a pitcher who began the season as the Cubs’ fifth starter.
Tribune baseball writer Phil Rogers noted that Hendricks, the quiet, unassuming Dartmouth grad, is positioned to do something that no other Cubs pitcher has done since Bill Lee in 1938 – lead the Major Leagues in ERA. The last to lead the NL was Ray Prim in 1945, Rogers observed.
“Greg Maddux didn’t do it while he was with Chicago,” Rogers wrote. “Nor did Fergie Jenkins, Rick Sutcliffe or any of the other live-arm guys who have called Wrigley Field home over the past 70 seasons.”
Neither did last year’s Cy Young winner, Arrieta, whose 1.77 ERA in 2015 came second to Zack Greinke’s 1.66.
What’s probably most amazing is that both Arrieta and Hendricks came to the Cubs almost as throwaways via trades.
Most Cubs fans have probably heard the Arrieta story by now. How the Cubs got him and reliever Pedro Strop in exchange for pitcher Scott Feldman and catcher Steve Clevenger in a midseason trade with the Baltimore Orioles in 2013.
But few probably know that Theo Epstein pulled off what has turned out to be a similar one-sided midseason steal in 2012 when the Cubs sent veteran pitcher Ryan Dempster to the Texas Rangers in exchange for infielder Christian Villanueva and Hendricks.
It’s hard to imagine where the Cubs would be today without those two trades. Certainly it seems unlikely that they’d be where they are today – sitting atop the NL Central with a league-best 84-47 record and a14-game lead over the Cardinals.
Much like Arrieta last year Hendricks seems to be getting better as the season progresses. In August, he posted a 4-0 record and 1.28 ERA in six starts, which included an NL Player of the Week Award early in the month that he shared with the Marlins’ Ichiro Suzuki.
Can he keep it going? There’s good reason to believe that he can. As the Sun-Times’ Cubs reporter Gordon Wittenmeyer reported, Hendricks’ career ERA of 2.96 ranks fifth among active pitchers with at least 70 starts. The only ones with lower totals: Jose Fernandez (2.54), Jacob deGrom (2.71), Chris Sale (2.95) and Madison Bumgarner (2.96, better by less than one-one-thousandth of a point).
But the humble Hendricks continues to downplay the Cy Young hype.
“I had my sights set a little lower,” Hendricks said.
Randy Richardson is the author of the Wrigleyville murder mystery, Lost in the Ivy, and a regular contributor to Wrigleyville Nation.