The Cubs gave the ball to RHP Kyle Hendricks for Opening Day, and he rewarded that faith
The general consensus at the start of this 60-game sprint that is the 2020 baseball season is that managers would be reluctant to stretch out their starting pitchers. With rosters expanding to 30 players, deep bullpens, and with every game counting just that much more, most pitchers wouldn’t even come close to throwing a complete game. But most pitchers aren’t Kyle Hendricks, and the Chicago Cubs right-hander proved that on Friday.
Hendricks, making his first career Opening Day start, dominated the Milwaukee Brewers lineup at Wrigley Field. He needed 103 pitches to throw a complete game, three-hit shutout of the Cubs’ NL Central rivals, his fourth career shutout. Hendricks is the first Cubs pitcher to toss a shutout on Opening Day since Bill Bonham in 1974.
But it was the manner in which he constantly confused the Brewers hitters that set this performance apart. Hendricks is the opposite of the prototype of the modern pitcher. He doesn’t throw hard, relying instead on a steady stream of breaking balls and dipping fastballs to keep hitters flailing away. He was 112th out of 113 starters with at least 100 innings last season in fastball velocity at 86.9 mph. On Friday, he didn’t throw a single pitch above 88 mph.
Instead, he threw 47 sinkers and 28 changeups against the Brewers, compared to only 12 fastballs. The results were outstanding. Christian Yelich, former NL MVP, went 0-4 with two strikeouts. Justin Smoak, making his Brewers debut, struck out twice in his three at-bats from the cleanup spot. Orlando Arcia, batting ninth in the Brewers lineup and a career .243 hitter (.217 against Hendricks), was the only one to solve Hendricks, collecting all three of Milwaukee’s hits. It’s the first game in modern MLB history in which a pitcher threw a three-hit shutout, with all three hits coming from the No. 9 spot in the lineup.
Steady efficiency is nothing new to Hendricks. He was 46th in the league last season averaging 89 pitches per start, around 15 per inning. That’s fewer than the reigning NL Cy Young Award winner, Jacob deGrom, Max Scherzer, and nearly three pitches per inning fewer than his Cubs teammate Jon Lester. Last May 3, he pitched a four-hit shutout against the Cardinals on only 81 pitches, a feat known as a Maddux after the former Cubs and Braves Hall of Famer.
Against the Brewers on Friday, he needed only 73 pitches to get through seven innings after retiring the side on five pitches. He’s the first pitcher with a three-hit shutout on Opening Day since Tom Glavine of the Braves in 1992, and the first Cub to do it since Lon Warneke in 1934.
Hendricks is beginning his seventh year in the big leagues and his first as the ace of the Cubs pitching staff. The Cubs expect to be playoff contenders. Last season, they led the NL Central as late as Aug. 22 before finishing seven games behind the Cardinals, losing 20 of their final 35 games. Having a pitcher like Hendricks take the ball every fifth day will make first-year manager David Ross’ job easier and prevent a repeat of what happened in 2019.
It was a fantastic beginning. For the Cubs, there was no better way to usher in the most unusual season in baseball history.