CHICAGO -- Even before he began having success in the big leagues, Chicago Cubs starter Kyle Hendricks heard the comparisons. The results weren’t there yet, but his style closely resembled that of a former Cub and current member of baseball’s Hall of Fame. The ability to make the ball move combined with a thinking man’s approach to pitching. It’s easy to picture Greg Maddux when Hendricks is on the mound.
“He's kind of like the Greg Maddux of this generation, with his ability to sink the ball, cut the ball, and put him in spots where hitters are enticed to swing at it but you can't put the barrel on it,” Kershaw said Thursday. “He's really good at mixing speeds, changing it up.”
That’s high praise from the top pitcher in baseball, comparing Hendricks to one of the greatest ever. So what does Maddux think of Hendricks?
“He does all those things usually better than the guys he’s facing,” Maddux said by phone from his home in Las Vegas. “If it was a radar contest, then why play the game, right? Velocity is nice, but command and movement are better.”
Hendricks’ repertoire will be put to the test when he faces Kershaw for the second time in the NLCS in Game 6 on Saturday night. A victory would send the Cubs to the World Series for the first time since 1945.
“It's big, but at the end of the day, you have to take the same mindset into it as any game,” Hendricks said Thursday afternoon. “I'm looking forward to it. It's a good matchup. I'm excited in a sense to get another crack at it.”
Hendricks lost a 1-0 decision in Game 2, a classic pitching duel, which led to Kershaw's comparison. Where are Hendricks and Maddux most similar?
“It’s mostly the [sinking] fastball,” Maddux said. “He has the ability to throw a two-seam fastball to both sides of the plate. Most pitchers are four-seam to one side and two-seam to the other. If you can throw your two-seamer to both sides of the plate, that’s an advantage to the pitcher.”
Informed of what Maddux likes best about his game, Hendricks smiled and nodded his head. Talented, cerebral pitchers apparently understand each other.
“In his time, it was hard to throw a sinker glove side -- away from arm side,” Hendricks said. “It’s developed more because pitchers see the benefit of it. But he was one of the pioneers, freezing lefties like that. Throwing my sinker to both sides of the plate has been a key for me.”
He’ll need his sinker and everything else working because navigating the same lineup two starts in a row can be difficult. The familiarity can give a slight advantage to the hitter, so changing up his approach is paramount for Hendricks. Maddux already sees that ability in Hendricks.
“Marco Estrada has one of the best changeups, but you see him sneak fastballs by guys all the time,” Maddux said of the Blue Jays pitcher. “Hendricks is no different. He has the ability to recognize when a hitter is sitting on a certain pitch and throw something else.”
Hendricks agrees: “Getting the reps and learning how to manage the game helps. Having a four-seam and a better curveball open the game up for me.”
Hendricks has had a better fastball this season, even as it sits in the 87 mph range, about 4-5 mph slower than what Maddux threw early in his career. And Hendricks will throw it when the opponent least expects it, even with a base open and a dangerous hitter at the plate. It’s been part of his evolution. But at the end of the day, the sinking pitch most reminds Maddux of himself when he watches the Cubs' emerging star.
“He relies on the low fastball that sinks pretty good,” Maddux said. “Very good at trying to keep the ball in front of the outfield with that pitch. That’s what it’s about -- locating your fastball, changing speeds and keeping the ball in the ballpark.
“He’s fun to watch.”