CHICAGO -- When Kyle Hendricks arrived in Spring Training last February, he wasn't sure if he had a spot in the Cubs rotation. The right-hander showed he belonged, finishing 2016 as the Major Leagues' ERA leader.
What was the difference? According to Statcast™, among Major League pitchers who threw a minimum of 1,000 pitches, Hendricks had the highest number of pitches that were called strikes outside of the zone (253 out of 2,888 pitches, or 8.76 percent of his total). Teammate Jon Lester was fifth (215 pitches out of 3,161, or 6.80 percent).
In 2015, Hendricks was fourth in the Majors with 236 pitches called strikes out of the zone (8.45 percent), while Lester was second (256 of 3,208 pitches, or 7.98 percent). The Astros' Dallas Keuchel led MLB in 2015 (286 pitches, 8.19 percent).
The reason Hendricks moved up in 2016? He said his mechanics and approach were better.
"I really felt [in 2016] I had a stretch where I was really locked in and hitting spots," Hendricks said. "I could dial in, I could hit a spot down and away, up and away, all four quadrants of the strike zone really. You know how umpires get, you keep hitting a spot and they give you a little more.
"I think my command was much better and my mechanics were more solid [in 2016]," he said. "In '15, the middle of the year, my mechanics were terrible and I felt I was throwing pitches over the middle of the plate. I think I was more dialed in [in 2016]."
What's interesting is the types of pitches Hendricks was effective with. He threw more changeups for called strikes in 2016 (26 compared to 11 in 2015), more cutters (48 compared to 29 in 2015) and more curveballs (36 compared to eight in 2015). Hendricks was not surprised when told about those numbers.
"I used to throw a cutter when I first came up, like in '14," he said. "I had a cutter, but I noticed it wasn't being effective, so I kind of ditched it. This past year, I realized I needed something straighter that doesn't really cut, so I started throwing a four-seamer again, but it'll cut once in a while."
Mike Borzello, the Cubs' catching and strategy coach, saw the difference in the right-hander.
"I've never been more proud of one pitcher than I was of him," Borzello said.
The key? Good mechanics plus confidence. Hendricks relied on a two-seam fastball and changeup in 2015, and knew he was predictable in certain counts.
"As a starter in the big leagues, having two pitches, you can't survive like that," he said. "I knew a change had to be done. It took the mechanics and being comfortable and being able to actually execute and have the confidence to do it; it came along."
In 2016, when Hendricks had two strikes against a batter, he went to his changeup more than any other pitch (345 times compared to 281 in 2015), but he also relied on his cutter (92 times compared to 36 in 2015).
When the right-hander was in a two-strike count and wanted to get an out, he threw his changeup 80 times (compared to 50 in 2015).
What will Hendricks, 27, do this season?
"Going into this year, you don't go into it looking to change or not to change," Hendricks said. "I know what I had and what I felt like. I like the pitches I'm using and that mix. I really liked my four-seam and using my curveball more. I really got to the point last year where I just felt I had to be present and be aware and see what the hitters are giving you. That's just reading the game, reading the swings, that kind of thing. That's all it comes down to -- the game is changing, hitters are changing, their approach.
"Going into this year, that's my goal again is to see what the hitters are giving me, see how they're reacting to these pitches," he said. "If I'm still getting away with four-seam, curveball, these things, then run with it, but just feel the game out as it goes and see what you need to work on."
Carrie Muskat has covered the Cubs since 1987, and for MLB.com since 2001. She writes a blog, Muskat Ramblings. You can follow her on Twitter @CarrieMuskat and listen to her podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.