By Donald G. Evans
Naming an Opening Day starter, for many Major League baseball managers, is a tough call. Opening Day pitcher is baseball’s de-facto Academy Awards, an honor that goes to just one player, presumably the best player, and represents leadership, excellence, and the assumed label Team Ace. Like an Oscar, Opening Day Starter carries with it all kinds of benefits—attention from the press, spotlight performances against opposing staff aces, contract negotiating leverage, and, in all but the most unlikely circumstances, job security. A team’s Opening Day starter is in this thing for the long haul.
And make no mistake, every pitcher wants that recognition. After a long offseason, the starting position players get to take the field, bask in the spotlight, swing, run, listen to the cheers, and generally play the game they love on the most precious and energizing day of the spring. Only one starting pitcher per team can say the same. These are alpha athletes, guys who’ve been the best at this game their whole lives, guys driven to be the best, guys, when looking around for the best option, will always say, “Put me in coach!”
A few teams, like the Dodgers with Clayton Kershaw, know, without doubt, to whom they will hand the ball. Many staffs have numerous candidates for the job, while others present no obvious options. Does the manager go with last year’s best pitcher? Or the perennial Cy Young candidate coming off a so-so season? Is it politically correct to favor the free agent acquisition over the loyal veteran? Does the young stud displace the diminishing veteran?
In the end, most managers choose their best pitcher, and then rank the other pitchers according to ability, with some deck shuffling for lefty-righty variance: 1, 2, 3, 4, all the way down to 5.
Jon Lester is the Cubs’ 1; Kyle Hendricks its 5.
For the Cubs, a well-maintained organization, with what managers and general managers and owners and hitting instructors and everybody else call “buy in,” this decision-making process raised little ire. Lester was happy to take the ball on Opening Day, and everybody else, down to Hendricks, said, “Fine with me.” All about winning.
But that decision-making process seems entirely flawed, or prejudiced, maybe even rigged. The conversation, from the beginning, was Lester or Arrieta: one or two? Kyle Hendricks or Brett Anderson four or five?
Crazy. Makes no sense. Kyle Hendricks is debatably the Chicago Cubs’ best starting pitcher, though of course Lester and Arrieta have a longer track record of excellence. Hendricks had the lowest earned run average of all starting pitchers last year—out of EVERY SINGLE starting pitcher to qualify for the ERA title, Hendricks was THE BEST. A guy who entered last season fighting to make the starting rotation, turned out one beautiful six or seven-inning stint after another. Since 1920, only two Cub starting pitchers recorded a lower ERA: Jake Arrieta in his all-world, Cy Young-winning 2015 season and Dick Ellsworth in 1963.
Like Greg Maddux before him, Hendricks out-thought opposing hitters, over and over, spotting his so-so fastball on the corners, moving it up and down, in and out, but mostly keeping hitters off balance with change of speed pitches and electric late movement.
Not dazzling, not that. But beautiful. Like Greg Maddux before him, Hendricks out-thought opposing hitters, over and over, spotting his so-so fastball on the corners, moving it up and down, in and out, but mostly keeping hitters off balance with change of speed pitches and electric late movement. He had a plan, executed the plan, changed the plan according to game situations, and got hitters out.
And Hendricks not only got hitters out, but he got them out easily—soft contact, key strikeouts, middle-of-the-diamond grounders when a double play was needed. In high-pressure situations – like, uh, Opening Day – he got even better.
But I’m happy to concede the 1-2 rotation spots to Lester and Arrieta. Lester, of the bulldog face and barking demeanor, helped the Boston Red Sox win two World Series before doing the same for the Cubs last year. He snarled his way to a fine season last year, maybe even better than Hendricks, and his overall resume, in every regard, is stronger than the younger, Show Me That Again Hendricks. Arrieta followed up a once-in-a-lifetime 2015, including a Never Been Done second half of that season, with a very good, if not splendid, 2016. Arrieta struggled a lot, especially with command, in the middle to latter parts of the season, but came through when it mattered in the playoffs and World Series. Fine: Lester, then Arrieta.
That gets us to the No. 3 slot in the rotation, and there waits an unwarranted and swift kick in Hendricks’ ass: John Lackey.
Lackey, like Lester and Arrieta, LOOKS LIKE A COMPETITOR. He yells—at umpires, his own catcher, his own infielders—and he snaps the ball into his glove and he harrumphs his way through the fifth and sixth innings, often with less distinction than gumption. There’s a fine line between competitor and asshole, and Lackey no doubt is often on the wrong side of that line. He turned in a 3.35 ERA last season, more than a half-run better than his career ERA. He benefited, like all Cub pitchers, from an outstanding defense, and put up an 11-8 record thanks in part to great run support.
Hendricks got considerably less run support—a bad luck pitcher who seemed to be the wrong end of lackluster offensive performances or off bullpen days. Seven times Hendricks went at least five innings, gave up two or less runs, and wound up with a loss or no decision. His 16-8 record should have been better, but even so was FIVE WINS BETTER than Lackey.
In fact, Hendricks’ record would have improved had Maddon given him the same respect, or confidence, he showed Lester, Arrieta and Lackey. On April 26, Hendricks was pulled after five innings and just 69 pitches in an eventual win over the Brewers; he got a no decision. On June 7, Hendricks got the hook after five innings of two-run ball and took the loss against the Phillies; he’d thrown 81 pitches. Sure, Maddon’s confidence in Hendricks increased as the year went on and his results were phenomenal. But going back to 2014, Maddon monitored Hendricks very closely, was on the edge of the dugout as soon as the opposing lineup changed over a third time, and generally did not trust Hendricks to work his way deeper into games.
Is it a flawed eye test that has made Maddon so suspect? The professorial-looking Hendricks, with his late-moving curveball and dive-bombing change, does not appear like the kind of pitcher who can will his way out of a jam. Arrieta, with the steely, I’ll Eat Your Young gaze, or Lester with the Just Try Me scowl, or Lackey, with strings of curse words being hurled over the top of his glove, LOOK LIKE they’re going to get it done. Or, if nothing else, they give the impression that it will go very hard on Maddon were he to deprive them of the opportunity.
Hendricks, at 27, is on the rise, not just as a respectable starter but a Big Game pitcher.
Hendricks, at 27, is on the rise, not just as a respectable starter but a Big Game pitcher. Last October and November, the Cubs won three of Hendricks’ five starts, losing both of the other games by 1-0 scores. He posted a 1.42 postseason ERA. For all that, Hendricks collected just one win. Why? He kept getting yanked early, despite performing at very high levels. Part of this is playoff baseball strategy, part of this was a line drive he took off the hand against the Giants, but part of it has to be that Maddon believes in his other pitchers more. In the Game 7 win against the Indians, Hendricks had given up just one run on four hits entering the fifth inning, the inning through which a starter needs to survive to qualify as the winning pitcher. He got Coco Crisp on a soft grounder to second, Robert Perez on a called third strike, and then walked Carlos Santana on two clearly bad strike-three calls by the home plate umpire—Hendricks painted the outside, then the inside corners, both perfectly executed pitches. So man on first, two outs, Cubs leading 5-1, Hendricks sitting at just 63 pitches. Throughout the course of the entire 2016 regular season, covering 31 starts, plus the playoffs covering four more, Hendricks had given up four runs just twice in a game, and never more than that. Hendricks gave up a modest number of home runs, almost no big innings, and generally was among the very best at limiting damage. So what does Maddon do to reward this fine young pitcher, cruising to a World Series-clinching victory? He goes to the bullpen, and not only the bullpen, but a short-rest Lester who cannot hold a runner on base to save his soul, and then a running-on-fumes Aroldis Chapman, who’s all but wearing a Disaster Waiting To Happen sandwich board on his back. We’ll never know, but I’m pretty sure if Maddon just does nothing, Game 7 ends without all that drama.
Lackey, of course, is 38, and was DLed once last year—an ominous sign for a pitcher his age. Even at his best, Lackey does not compare favorably to Hendricks, and nobody expects his best at this late time in his career. Lackey is coming off two very good seasons, but last year Hendricks was better in every statistical category except strikeouts. Hendricks’ WAR was 5.0, exactly twice as good as Lackey’s 2.5 WAR. TWICE AS GOOD. In the postseason last year, Lackey gave up nearly five runs a game in his three starts, lasting on average barely more than four innings.
So you want Hendricks to, at the very least, face the opposing team’s No. 3, and you want Lackey to face the other team’s next best guy. This would make the Cubs a better team. Instead, Maddon slotted Hendricks all the way down at five, a slot below reclamation project Brett Anderson, a pitcher who was pretty good a pretty long time ago but after a bunch of injuries might be anywhere from Great Again to Iowa’s Not Really So Bad.
The lack of respect is monumental, and might just be significant. While Maddon caters to the frothing veteran pitchers, he treats Hendricks symbolically as a marginal, year-by-year, We Feel Pretty Good About Him….But type of guy. Lester has the long contract, but also a soon-to-be long tooth. Arrieta is gone after this year. Lackey will probably retire, or battle to be relevant in 2018. Brett Anderson is likely to be one of those guys you can’t quite place when you stumble across his baseball card five years from now.
Hendricks is the present and the future, about the only solid future the Cubs have in terms of starting pitchers. And when the calendar turned, the weather softened, and the boys, bursting with energy, took the field on Opening Day, there was Professor Kyle, wrapped up in his silky Cub jacket, watching, waiting, not a day, not two days, but nearly a week for his turn. He’ll likely rack up wins against a bunch of also-ran No. 5 guys, maybe even get another World Series ring to decorate his finger. But at some point, Hendricks will be in position to command not only money, but respect, from some other team, and wouldn’t it be better to treat him like an ace now than try to convince him that’s how you feel later?
Donald G. Evans is Executive Director of the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame and author of Good Money After Bad