Kyle Hendricks is keeping a methodical, big-picture focus through his rehab process.
Fully embracing a one-day-at-a-time mantra has been a staple of Hendricks’ routine since his 2022 season officially was shut down in August because of a capsular tear in his right shoulder. He hasn’t thrown off a mound since his last start June 5 as he continues to work through the Chicago Cubs’ detailed throwing progression plan.
Hendricks is unlikely to be ready for the start of the season. He isn’t sure at this point if the Cubs’ March 30 opener is a realistic goal, adding “that might be pushing it a little bit.”
“We’re really not putting a day on it so if it comes sometime in April, May — I really want to be there and be 100% for these guys,” Hendricks said.
“Winning this division is obviously our first goal, and you’re only going to do that by getting hot at the end (of the season), so whatever ramp I need to take, I just want to be there as soon as I can and make as many starts. … Putting those (opening-day) expectations is tough, but it’s very close around that time. Once I get off the mound and see all that goes and how much they want me to build up — there’s a lot of factors that go into it.”
Hendricks started his throwing program Dec. 1, a few weeks behind when he typically begins ramping up for the season. Going 4½ months without pitching has challenged Hendricks, who prefers a heavy throwing load in the offseason and between starts. He anticipates building up to pitching off a mound around March 1. He’s currently at 90-feet long-toss throws.
Most important, Hendricks said his shoulder feels amazing, which is the No. 1 priority.
“It took a while going through all the exercises and stuff from the beginning to prepare myself to throw,” Hendricks said. “I would feel good, but sometimes you have to take that out of it. I really had to put a lot of faith into the doctors and the trainers because shoulders can be really tough and it can just be a slow process.
“I’d obviously like to be ramping up and getting after it. But it’s a little different process for me. It’s one day at a time.”
Improved rotation depth helps lessen the urgency of Hendricks’ return.
“It gives me a lot of mental ease, and I know the organization feels that way too,” Hendricks said. “We have a lot of depth to start the year with and you always have those off days at the beginning of the season to get through that first month so we’re going to be set up fine to get through the beginning of that.”
Capsular tears sometimes require surgery. That remains in the picture for Hendricks if the shoulder issue reemerges. MRIs on his right shoulder have looked clean, and physically Hendricks can tell the area feels stronger through six-plus months of continuous rehab work.
“You can’t really worry about what if — if (the rehab) doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. We’re not going to look back and say, gosh, I wish we had done this and we should have done this — no, we’re doing things the right way that the doctors approved of and recommended and our training staff and internal guys recommended,” pitching coach Tommy Hottovy told the Tribune Saturday. “The coaching staff and the analytical side, we’re all on the same page. So it’s not like somebody’s going to be like, well, I told you if had done XYZ … that’s not the case.”
A shortened arm path
Evaluating how Hendricks can recapture his old form dates further than pre-injury last season.
Hendricks’ arm action has evolved since his career-best 2016 performance. Over time, the right-hander’s arm path has become too elongated: pulling his arm up into the ideal elbow flexion position put stress on his shoulder and the kinetic chain became disconnected.
Hottovy and the Cubs pitching infrastructure have worked with Hendricks over the offseason to harness a shorter, more direct arm path. Hendricks admitted the adjustment felt weird his first couple of weeks throwing, which to this point has been on flat ground. The big test to his reformed arm path will come when he throws off a mound, calling that eventual checkpoint in his rehab as an eye-opening moment for where his delivery is at.
“It feels drastic to me yet it might look subtle,” Hendricks said. “I don’t want to get too short because that’s kind of too far the opposite way. So it’s more making sure I get the ball out of my glove and stay long enough but then just get it right up to my ear. That’s really where my strong position is anyway.
“I can tell how healthy I feel and how good my shoulder feels when I do it the right way.”
Hendricks anticipates his shorter, more direct arm path will make his stuff sharper with more life on pitches.
“I just want to make sure I have full extension again and I’m finishing all my pitches,” Hendricks said. “That’s where my good action is going to come and hopefully back to a lot of soft contact.”
The Cubs also believe the adjustment will help Hendricks avoid a similar injury in the future while creating a more consistent and effective delivery.
“(Longer arm action) works when you’re in sync and your shoulder is strong and healthy,” pitching coach Tommy Hottovy said. “The minute it gets outside of your bubble, that creates a ton of stress. (The change) feels weird because a lot of the training he always wants to get his arm out (behind him).
“When you deal with injuries, sometimes you’ve got to make changes to help repattern that movement and change the stress that was being put on one area and move it somewhere else and move it more efficiently.”
A teammate’s insight
Jameson Taillon understands how an injury can spur change to pitcher’s delivery and what it takes to implement a shorter arm path.
Coming off his second Tommy John surgery in 2019, Taillon knew something had to change. He took it as a sign that his something clearly wasn’t right with his delivery and arm movement.
“People would have thought I was crazy, I threw 32 starts and 191 innings (in 2018), but I knew deep down something wasn’t quite right,” Taillon told the Tribune on Saturday. “I wasn’t recovering properly. So when I had that second elbow surgery it was like my body me let’s go attack this and clean up (my arm path).”
Hendricks was in the process of implementing his shorter arm movement when the Cubs signed Taillon on Dec. 18. They connected via texts in which Taillon was an open book to Hendricks about the process he went through to adjust to his shorter arm path, going in depth on specific drills that worked best for him, lower-body changes that were needed in conjunction and weight-room activation to aid in carrying over arm patterns and repetitions.
Utilizing hip-hinge exercises improved Taillon’s lower-body strength and stability while incorporating plyo balls helped him create patterns with his arm path so it became second nature. Taillon has maintained the same drills involving plyo balls and a medicine ball the last three years. He outlined his approach and application to Hendricks.
“That’s the fun part about playing with guys who care about their craft is you can have those conversations,” Taillon said.
Lower-body drills play a deceptively important role for a smooth delivery. Efficient lower-half movements has a ripple effect on efficient arm motion, collectively allowing a delivery to speed up in sync. Hottovy believes the Cubs could see a more athletic, freely moving Hendricks this season with his lower body and arm more aligned in conjunction with the arm-path change.
Hendricks, 33, knows he needs to deliver in 2023 as he faces an uncertain future in Chicago entering the final guaranteed year of his contract. The Cubs hold a $16 million option for 2024. Overcoming the shoulder injury and adapting to a shorter arm path present a different challenge for Hendricks.
“It’s fun to see him continue to evolve,” Hottovy said. “It’s good to feel uncomfortable at times. Uncomfortable may be a good thing. Maybe that’s your body reorganizing and getting back to being healthy. There’s going to be a process and a lot of communication along the road. That’s what we have to do. You can’t just keep pushing if something’s up. You have to make adjustments.”