By Michael Klopman
Heading into the 2016 season, the Chicago Cubs had the reigning National Cy Young winner, Jake Arrieta, along with two former All-Star pitchers, Jon Lester and John Lackey, at the top of their rotation. Surely, those three pitchers were going to take care of business on the mound.
And yet, more than a week into September, there happens to be another Cubs pitcher who leads the National League in ERA. He is also just one of two starting pitchers in either league to have a sub-1 WHIP (Max Scherzer is the other one) and is tied for most complete games thrown this season by the Cubs.
On Monday, Hendricks came within three outs of no-hitting the Cardinals, hurling eight innings, surrendering just one hit and striking out seven. It's worth examining: Where exactly did this breakout season come from?
An eighth-round pick in the 2011 Draft, Hendricks was projected as a serviceable fourth or fifth starter who eats innings. His fastball was nothing to write home about, but his command and ability to change speeds made him stand out.
In 2013, Fangraphs posted a "Prospect Stock Watch" scouting report on Hendricks, which said: "He has a strong frame, keeps his pitch count to a minimum and has a low-effort delivery, all of which should allow him to act as an innings-eating No. 4 starter."
Before making his Major League debut in 2014, Baseball America didn't have very high expectations either: "In terms of a fantasy pickup, the larger factor might be the Cubs' inability to win on a consistent basis. If you need wins, Hendricks might not be worth the price."
Hendricks is not flashy. His strikeout-per-nine rate this season is at a middling 7.91. And his .236 BABIP shows he has gotten plenty of help from his defense -- although so have Arrieta (.229), Lester (.252) and Lackey (.252).
What Hendricks is doing, as Mike Petriello of MLB.com explained in July, is keeping the same release point for all of his pitches. That has allowed him to fool batters with changing speeds, induce very soft contact and get a lot of called strikes.
Or, as Cubs manager Joe Maddon put it earlier in the season: "It's a wonderful, classic example of not having to throw 90-some miles an hour to be effective."
Hendricks has certainly been effective. And because of his ascension in the NL Cy Young conversation, the Cubs will likely go into the postseason with arguably the best four-man rotation in the league.
That's what makes this story so fascinating to watch. Out of all the Cubs' big names, there's this unassuming right-handed pitcher who had to battle Adam Warren in Spring Training for the final rotation spot. And yet he could play a key role come October.
Michael Klopman is an associate producer for Sports on Earth. His work has also appeared on Huffington Post Sports.