Greg Maddux 2.0? Cubs' Kyle Hendricks is just getting started

MILWAUKEE -- Chicago Cubs righty Kyle Hendricks is out to prove 2016 was no fluke. In fact, the reigning National League ERA champ is thinking even bigger this year.

Could he really be better in 2017? He was asked that very question on the eve of his first start, which comes Saturday night against the Milwaukee Brewers.

"The only way for me to get better is to keep it as simple as possible. All that means is going pitch to pitch, game to game, day to day," Hendricks said. "I learned so much last year. I want to use that information. It's there, I just have to let it come through. Yes, I think I can be better."

It has been an incredible rise for Hendricks over the past 24 months. He has gone from a relative unknown to a star after clinching Game 6 of the National League Championship Series and Game 7 of the World Series.

Ask Cubs catching coach Mike Borzello whom he's most proud of over the course of his career and there's not much hesitation -- and this from someone who has worked with Clayton Kershaw and Jake Arrieta.

"He'd be No. 1, based on all the things he finally was receptive in doing," Borzello said. "It took some time but I don't think anyone realized how good he could be, maybe including himself.

"I don't know if I expected him to win the ERA title, but I certainly thought he was capable of doing more than he was doing."

It took time, but Hendricks found his groove. His style has often been compared to that of former Cubs pitcher and Hall of Famer Greg Maddux, and now the results are catching up.

It has brought newfound fame; Hendricks was even recognized while in Hawaii this past offseason. He feels his style lends itself to the everyman, folks who see a little bit of themselves in the mild-mannered, 6-foot-2 pitcher.

Hendricks supposes throwing 90 mph instead of 100 has something to do with that.

"People out there can't do that [throw 100], and neither can I," Hendricks said with a smile. "I don't have that physically, so I have to figure out other ways to get people out. I think that probably connects with the average fan."

Hendricks' journey to fame didn't happen overnight. Though he went to Dartmouth and is nicknamed ‘The Professor,' it took a while for Hendricks to take advantage of his ability to understand how things fit together for him on the mound.

"It was more surprising to me that it didn't when he first started," Borzello said, referencing when Hendricks' Ivy League education started to come into play. "Once he did understand where I was coming from, he gets it now and sees pitching from a different standpoint."

Now that his brain has caught up to his stuff, which has always had Maddux-like movement, Hendricks insists he's not going to reinvent the wheel.

"You can't be tricking these guys or overthinking it," he said. "At the end of the day, a good pitch is going to get a good hitter out. My focus is on making good pitches."

Cubs manager Joe Maddon often notices how opposing hitters react after seeing an at-bat's worth of those good pitches. It's often with a slight shake of the head, as if the hitters are wondering how Hendricks is getting them out.

Ask almost any Cubs player, and they all perk up when it's Hendricks' turn to pitch.

"I love watching him," fellow starter Jon Lester has said. "I'll sit back and just enjoy him breaking down opposing hitters."

Now Hendricks has that experience to fall back on. No moment could be too big after last year's playoffs.

"I've never seen that big of a swing, especially in one season," Borzello said. "Even the first two months of last season weren't going that well. For him to finish the way he did and wind up pitching Game 7 of the World Series is pretty special."

As for this season, Borzello explained it starts with the confidence and ability to throw any pitch at any time. It's not just about Hendricks' two-seam fastball or changeup anymore.

"Not only is it any pitch at any time, it's any pitch in any location," Borzello said. "I think that's what makes him so tough. You can't focus on one zone anymore like a hitter used to. He can do things in all four quadrants of the strike zone."

When he's off, Hendricks can self-correct better than ever. His arm strength has increased along with his confidence.

Are his outings now must-watch affairs?

"I don't know if I've become must-watch," he said, laughing. "But I think people can relate to me. Or at least it seems that way. ... The game has gone so much towards velocity and I love watching that, too, but there's other ways to get guys out."

Hendricks and his family can now truly enjoy his being a big leaguer. After spending so much time striving to make it, he more than arrived last season to the point where his dad, who moved from California to Chicago to watch him, can just be a very interested fan -- like the rest of Chicago.

"He used to be the coach a little more," the younger Hendricks said. "Over the last year I've seen it taper down. I'm happy about that. He can sit back and enjoy."

Will his father -- and Cubs fans -- get to enjoy an even better Kyle Hendricks this time around?