The Professor is back: Cubs' Kyle Hendricks recapturing championship form

CHICAGO -- The hand-wringing has been going on for a few days now. What is wrong with the Chicago Cubs? When will the defending champs finally show up?

After they beat the Cincinnati Reds 7-5 on Wednesday, the Cubs are back over .500. It's just a starting point for a team that finished 45 games over .500 a season ago. But as we wait for this year's club to find its rhythm, one player seems to be recapturing his championship form. That would be righty Kyle Hendricks, the Professor.

"His last outing in Colorado was pretty good as well," Cubs catcher Miguel Montero said after Hendricks mostly baffled the Reds. "Even the [velocity] was picking up. It was good to see. He's just doing a great job right now."

Hendricks looked anything but professorial during a rocky three-start stretch to begin his season. He had a 6.19 ERA during those starts, which was a stark contrast to his 2016 season, in which he led the majors with a 2.13 ERA. His ragged start kept his numbers inflated for a while, but now he has eased his way back into Professor mode.

"That was classic Kyle right there," Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. "He was really good. Velocity was up. You saw the bad takes, the bad swings. Contact wasn't as hard."

Despite a fierce wind out of the south that bent the trees outside of Wrigley with a bit of violence, Hendricks held the Reds to two runs over six innings Wednesday before departing with 107 pitches under his belt. Hendricks allowed a homer to Zack Cozart because Cozart always homers at Wrigley Field, but after working out of some early jams, Hendricks got stronger as he progressed.

Hendricks retired 10 of the last 11 batters he faced, allowing only a walk, and he didn't allow a hit after the third. The Reds' swings grew increasingly feeble as he navigated the Cincinnati lineup for a third time. That's vintage Hendricks, the one we remember from last year.

"I got stronger in the later innings," Hendricks said. "I felt much better, much more under control. Getting stronger as the game goes on, that's always a good sign."

Over his past five outings, Hendricks has a 1.82 ERA with 25 strikeouts against 11 walks. The Cozart home run was just the second that Hendricks has given up during this stretch. He gave up four homers in those first three starts. But the best evidence of the Professor's return is this: According to True Media, Hendricks' well-hit average allowed in his past five starts is .133; in his first three starts, it was .290. He led the majors in that metric a season ago at .089. Soft contact is the name of his game.

Although Hendricks' average velocity still hasn't fully returned to last season's level, it is trending upward. That's good news for any control pitcher, but it's especially good for one such as Hendricks, who relies so heavily on a changeup that gets better with every mile per hour he can muster from his hard stuff.

According to Statcast data from baseballsavant.mlb.com, Hendricks averaged 84.1 over the first three innings. Over his final three frames, that was 85.4 mph. That was enough to get the normally implacable Professor pumped up -- sort of.

"I talked to him afterward, and he was really excited," Maddon said.

Excited? Hendricks?

"Well, he smiled, we shook hands, he nodded. And I believe there was a slight chuckle involved."

As a whole, the Cubs' rotation ranks just 16th in the majors with a combined ERA of 4.44. It's still a worry that Jake Arrieta has looked so ordinary. It's still a worry that the Cubs might lack a fifth starter, though they have high hopes after Eddie Butler's debut with the team. But if you've had Hendricks on your list of Cub-related reasons for concern, it's probably safe to scratch him off.

"I think they're all trending in the right direction," Maddon said.

"[Jon] Lester has been solid the whole year. [John] Lackey has gotten incrementally better. I think the same thing is happening with Kyle right now. What you saw tonight is what Kyle is supposed to look like, and that is very encouraging."

The Professor is back. Class is in session. In truth, it was probably never dismissed. The champs might not be in October form, but with a long homestand off to a successful start, the Cubs are starting to show a little bounce.

"It's great, coming off a road trip and having an off-day to recharge and having a nice, long homestand," Hendricks said. "You see the at-bats we're putting together already. Early in the game [tonight], just great at-bats. You can tell guys are getting their legs under them a little bit."