Liam Hendriks seemingly came out of nowhere to emerge as the Oakland A’s closer in 2019. When the season begins, he will be looking to prove that performance was not a fluke.
Prior to 2019, Liam Hendriks had been one of many serviceable middle relievers. The Oakland A’s righty had spent parts of eight seasons in the majors, moving to the bullpen after flaming out as a starter with the Twins. He had found a home in relief, but was essentially invisible – a pitcher few paid attention to unless he blew a game coming out of the bullpen.
Then, last season, everything came together for Hendriks. Blake Treinen had been banished from the closer role, giving Hendriks the opportunity he needed. In a storybook 2019, Hendriks posted a 1.80 ERA and a 0.965 WHiP, notching 25 saves while striking out 124 batters in 85 innings. He made his first All Star Game, and received a $3.15 million raise in his final season before free agency.
If this was indeed a storybook, Hendriks’ tale would end there. He would be atop his game, with the story continuing in the minds of the reader. Chances are, that would be a springboard to success, as he would emerge as a star going forward. Alas, that is not how the real world works. Hendriks now needs to go forth and prove that his 2019 campaign was not a fluke. As it turns out, he may be able to do just that.
The biggest change for Hendriks in 2019 came with his arsenal. In 2018, he had been a three pitch reliever, using a four seam fastball, a sinker, and a slider. While opponents managed a .442 slugging percentage against the fastball, and a .303 slugging percentage against the slider, his sinker was pounded to a .684 clip.
In 2019, Hendriks essentially scrapped the sinker, using the fastball and slider for 88.77% of all the pitches he threw. While he still mixed in the sinker and a change every so often, his curve became that new third pitch. This combination worked, as opponents produced a .362 slugging percentage on the fastball and a .177 slugging percentage against the slider. This new third offering, the curve, resulted in a .148 slugging percentage against.
Those numbers led to a .201/.255/.309 batting line against the newfound closer. As the .315 batting average against on balls in play is relatively in line with his career .326 mark, there is reason to hope that Hendriks will not see much regression. Likewise, his 1.87 FIP indicates that Hendriks was truly as good as he seemed.
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Expecting a repeat performance of last year may be unrealistic. However, now that Liam Hendriks adjusted his arsenal, he appears ready to build upon his breakout 2019 campaign.