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Amid breakout season, can Cubs' Kyle Hendricks take home NL Cy Young?

The owner of the majors' best ERA and a near no-hitter against St. Louis, Kyle Hendricks's Cy Young candidacy is for real. But can the little-known righthander actually win it?

After a breakout season in which he won the NL Cy Young award, Jake Arrieta authored the 2016 season's first no-hitter back on April 21. On Monday night, Cubs teammate Kyle Hendricks came within three outs of a no-hitter himself—against the Cardinals no less—in a game that reduced Chicago's magic number to clinch the National League Central to three. While Jeremy Hazelbaker's ninth-inning solo home run stopped Hendricks short of completing the feat, the 26-year-old righty is following in Arrieta's footsteps in a year that could earn him Cy Young consideration.

Monday's outing marked the fourth time this year that a no-hitter was broken up in the ninth inning; the Giants’ Matt Moore, who fell one out short against the Dodgers on Aug. 25, was the most recent. Hendricks's eight-inning gem trimmed his ERA to 2.03, the lowest of any qualified major league starter; Clayton Kershaw, who has a 1.89 mark, is 19 innings shy after missing 2 1/2 months due to a herniated disc. Hendricks has allowed two or fewer runs in 13 of his last 15 starts (plus one relief appearance) dating back to June 19, producing a 1.27 ERA in 99 1/3 innings. While he hasn't been as dominant as Kershaw or last year's model of Arrieta, his showing is far beyond what the Cubs could have imagined for a pitcher who came into the season considered their fifth starter behind Arrieta, Jon Lester, John Lackey and Jason Hammel.

Chosen in the eighth round of the 2011 draft out of Dartmouth—where his fastball touched 95 mph—by the Rangers, Hendricks was hardly an afterthought, though he never cracked a team top-10 prospect list in either Texas or Chicago, which acquired him in a 2012 deadline deal that sent Ryan Dempster to the Rangers. The Baseball America Handbook 2012 noted that Hendricks had one of the best professional debuts among the Rangers' 2011 draftees, basing that on just a 36-inning sample. Their 2014 book ranked him 11th among the Cubs' prospects, describing him as "a command-oriented starter who relies on his feel for pitching, a good changeup and an ability to locate his fastball" and noting that some scouts graded his control as a 70 on the 20–80 scouting scale ("plus-plus").

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Baseball Prospectus' Jason Parks—previously the proprietor of the Texas Farm Review subscription site and now a Cubs scout—described Hendricks in November 2012 as having a limited ceiling, writing, "I see a back-end type; maybe middle relief. Could be a future contributor, but not a prospect that will excite the masses." Near the end of the 2013 season—which Hendricks split between Double and Triple A, posting a 2.00 ERA with 6.9 strikeouts per nine—BP's Jason Cole (now a Rays scout) echoed Parks's praise, calling Hendricks "an extreme strike thrower [who] commands a deep arsenal that includes four- and two-seam fastballs, a cutter, slider, curve, and change… [He] likely isn’t more than a no. 4 or 5 starter—and that’s probably his ceiling—but the pitchability should enable a big-league future."

Hendricks debuted in the majors on July 10, 2014, and spent his first year and a half more or less living up to that billing. In 13 starts in his rookie season, he posted a 2.46 ERA and 3.32 FIP with minuscule walk and homer rates (1.7 and 0.4 per nine, respectively), offsetting a measly 5.1 strikeouts per nine. His ERA shot to 3.95 last year and his FIP remained stable (3.36), but he boosted his strikeout rate to a much more robust 8.4 per nine. This year, his FIP is 3.38, with 7.9 strikeouts, 2.2 walks and 0.8 homers per nine—not dominant, but reflecting his exceptional control; that last mark is second in the league, his FIP eighth, his 173 innings 10th.

Hendricks doesn't get a ton of swings and misses: His 10.2% swinging strike rate ranks 15th among the 33 qualified NL starters. That's essentially the same as Arrieta (10.2%) and Lester (10.3%), but well below other Cy Young hopefuls such as Max Scherzer (15.2%), Noah Syndergaard (14.5%) and Jose Fernandez (14.3%). His average four-seam fastball velocity is just 89.0 mph, according to Brooks Baseball, but he throws that just 20.5% of the time; his sinker, which he's far more reliant upon (45.0%), averages just 88.1 mph. On Monday night, 18 of his 96 pitches were four-seamers, with an average velocity of 89.3, and his 32 sinkers averaged 88.6 mph.

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As FanGraphs' Jeff Sullivan pointed out two weeks ago, those numbers actually reflect an evolution in Hendricks's approach and contain the seed of his breakout: "Hendricks has always had two fastballs, but for a while he strongly preferred his sinker. Against lefties, he’s now grown fond of his four-seamer, such that recently it’s been even more frequent." Indeed, where Hendricks threw lefties his four-seamer just 10.5% of the time last year (compared to 52.8% for the sinker), he's now throwing the more four-seamers than sinkers (32.9% versus 27.8%). Where lefties tagged him for a .267/.325/.472 line last year, with 13 homers, this year he's held them to a .219/.279/.342 line with six homers. He's also smothered righties at a .184/.242/.296 clip, for a .538 OPS; among pitchers with at least 300 batters faced, only Scherzer (.452 OPS), Carlos Martinez (.515) and Kershaw (.536) are lower.

That increased usage of the four-seamer points to Hendricks's slightly lower ground-ball rate than last year (48.4%, down from 51.3%), but more importantly, he now has the league's highest soft-hit rate among starters (25.5%) and the second-lowest hard-hit rate (25.3%; all figures via FanGraphs). Improved mechanics have helped, and so has his changeup, now considered his best pitch. Batters swing at it and miss 25.1% of the time—Monday night produced a representative nine whiffs from among 36 changeups—and when they connect, it’s with little success; batters have hit just .130 against it when putting it into play, with a .236 slugging percentage and six homers in 246 at-bats (including Hazelbaker’s). By comparison, those numbers are .175 and .330 for the four-seamer, .272 and .369 for the sinker.

Hendricks does owe a significant amount of credit to the Cubs' defense, which has a .732 defensive efficiency rate, a whopping 28 points better than the No. 2 team (the Giants) and 44 points better than league average. His .238 BABIP is the league's second-lowest mark behind Arrieta's .229, and his 1.32 runs per nine gap between his FIP and ERA is the league's largest among starters.

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That defensive support and the modest strikeout rate could undercut Hendricks's Cy Young case, and they cut into his value via the FanGraphs' version of WAR, which is driven by FIP; he's been 3.7 Wins Above Replacement by that measure, seventh among NL starters (Fernandez, at 5.7, is first). Via Baseball-Reference's version of WAR, which is driven by runs allowed, he's at 4.6, tied with Kershaw and Johnny Cueto for fourth, 0.1 behind both Syndergaard and Tanner Roark (4.7), and further behind Scherzer (5.9). Still, not every voter is driven by analytics, and Hendricks's combination of won-loss record (15–7) and ERA—the last of which is 0.45 runs per nine lower than the second-ranked Syndergaard and 0.75 lower than the fifth-ranked Scherzer—gives him more than a puncher's chance in a race that has no clear favorite.

Though voters will have to make up their minds in that race by the end of the regular season, far more important to Hendricks and the Cubs is what happens after that, as they vie for their first pennant since 1945 and their first championship since 1908. Right now, no matter how manager Joe Maddon lines up his rotation, a front four of Arrieta, Lester, Lackey and Hendricks looks like the majors' most formidable in a short series, particularly with the availability of frontliners such as Stephen Strasburg, Steven Matz and Danny Salazar in doubt due to injuries. But no matter where Hendricks lines up, what’s clear is that the Cubs have once again struck gold while mining for starting pitching.