Kyle Hendricks is like the frosting on a birthday cake. Peanut butter on toast. Hot fudge on a sundae.

The Chicago Cub is the best starting pitcher on MLB‘s top team, which stood 78-45 through Sunday’s action.

Though the right-hander boasts an MLB-best 2.16 ERA, the Cubs would likely still be firmly in playoff position without him. Chicago is loaded with position players who were heralded as the organization’s future when they were climbing the minor league ranks a few years ago. First baseman Anthony Rizzo, third baseman/outfielder Kris Bryant and shortstop Addison Russell are just a few of those players who received more fanfare than Hendricks to start the season.

The California native is also overshadowed by brand-name pitchers Jon Lester and John Lackey, who have World Series rings, and Jake Arrieta, who is the reigning National League Cy Young Award winner.

No one ever tells you how much they love the hot fudge; they tell you how great the sundae tastes. Hendricks is a cog in the machine. He’s not the horse pulling the cart like, say, the Los Angeles Dodgers‘ Clayton Kershaw was before he got hurt.

Look, maybe numbers sometimes do lie, but they don’t in this case: Hendricks’ 1.00 WHIP ranks second in MLB, and his .208 batting average against is sixth.

But oftentimes, awards and accolades in sports are entirely more complex than the numbers indicate.

Like a preseason-unranked college football team trying to climb its way into the College Football Playoff, preconceived notions have made it difficult to turn up the volume on Hendricks’ 2016 campaign.

The 26-year-old doesn’t have the eye-popping resume one would expect of an ace. The Texas Rangers selected Hendricks in the eighth round of the 2011 draft. He was traded to the Cubs with another minor leaguer for Ryan Dempster in 2012 and didn’t make his MLB debut until he was 24.

This season, his fastball has averaged 89.7 mph, according to FanGraphs. By pitching standards, he’ll never be voted prom king. But he has proved he can be the life of the party.

He has handled the best lineups MLB has to offer. Hendricks pitched six shutout innings, allowing only two hits and two walks, against the Washington Nationals on May 5. Against the Rangers on July 15, he also pitched six shutout innings and surrendered just three hits and two walks.

This after a 2015 season that raised questions about his ability to be a reliable starter in a pennant race.

Last year, Hendricks had a 3.95 ERA in 32 starts. In Game 2 of the National League Division Series against the St. Louis Cardinals, he allowed three home runs in 4.2 innings. He was slightly better in Game 3 of the National League Championship Series, giving up one home run and two earned runs in four innings against the New York Mets. Those performances were a big reason the Cubs signed Lackey to a two-year, $32 million contract in December.

Unexpectedly, however, Hendricks has answered the bell.

But only recently have the Cubs given him a chance to add Cy Young moments to his 2016 resume and, even minimally, prove he has the ability to lead Chicago’s pitching staff.

While Hendricks’ numbers put him in consideration for the team’s best arm, Cubs manager Joe Maddon hasn’t used him accordingly.

Through his final start in July, Hendricks had been given just a few opportunities to pitch at least seven innings, and Maddon often pulled him when his pitch count was well below 100. One of those outings came against the Philadelphia Phillies on May 28, and Hendricks pitched a complete game.

The ability to go deep into games has long been the mark of a top-of-the-rotation pitcher. Hendricks may have it, but he hasn’t had consistent opportunities to prove he does.

Don’t place blame on Maddon. It’s not his job to do what’s best for Hendricks’ notoriety. Maddon’s task is to manage the team.

Though Hendricks has been the best of Chicago’s starters, the rotation as a whole has been outstanding. Through Monday, Cubs starters were the best in MLB in ERA (2.89) and batting average against (.211).

Naturally, that has kept Chicago’s bullpen fresh. Cubs relievers have pitched a mere 351.2 innings—the second-fewest in baseball—and have the third-lowest batting average against (.219). So solid relief pitching has been available to Maddon. Given that people viewed Hendricks as the club’s fourth starter prior to the season, it made sense for the Chicago manager to use the bullpen on days Hendricks started.

A confluence of events has deafened the tone of Hendricks’ season.

But in August, Maddon has used him more like an ace. It’s a test of whether Hendricks can pitch deep into games.

On Aug. 1, Hendricks pitched a complete-game shutout against the Miami Marlins. In his next start, he surrendered just three hits and one earned run in 7.1 innings against the Oakland Athletics. In his last two, Hendricks has pitched 13 combined innings, striking out 15 and allowing only nine hits, three earned runs and one walk.

Maddon has given Hendricks more latitude, and he’s hit triple-digit pitch counts in three of his last four outings after doing so just seven times in his first 20 starts.

Hendricks is taking that next step toward top-of-the-rotation status as the organization starts to evaluate how it wants to set up its rotation for the playoffs.

The loaded Cubs led the National League Central by 12 games through Sunday and are highly likely to have that luxury.

And as Hendricks continues to prove his value, maybe you’ll be reminded to lick the frosting first the next time you eat cake.


Seth Gruen is a national baseball columnist for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @SethGruen.

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