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Liam Hendriks: His Past, Present and Future With the White Sox

Aside from a few homers, the South Side closer was absolutely dominant out of the pen in 2021.

MLB: ALDS-Houston Astros at Chicago White Sox
Liam Hendriks led the American League in saves in 2021, with 38.
Matt Marton-USA TODAY Sports

“Deep Dive” focuses on the depth of each position in the Chicago White Sox organization. Each position is broken into a five-part series:

  1. Depth in the rookie levels (Dominican and Arizona)
  2. Depth in A-ball (Kannapolis and Winston-Salem)
  3. Depth in the higher levels (Birmingham and Charlotte)
  4. Under the Radar-type detail on a White Sox player
  5. Free agent options

This article delves into the career of Liam Hendriks through 2020, his 2021 season with the White Sox, and what his future looks like in the White Sox organization.

How did he get here?

Born and raised in Perth, Western Australia, Hendriks began playing tee ball when he was five (rather than the traditional Australian summer game of cricket), before transitioning to baseball at the age of 10. He also played Australian rules football. Hendriks continued playing both baseball and football through high school at Sacred Heart College, Sorrento.

In fact, Hendriks was so good that he received a $170,000 signing bonus from the Minnesota Twins to play ball Stateside on Feb. 25, 2007.

Hendriks debuted for the Twins in 2007, pitching for the Gulf Coast League Twins, and led the team in strikeouts with 52. He was also named as a Twins Top 50 prospect. He pitched for the Perth Heat in the 2008 Claxton Shield and went 3–0 with a 1.90 ERA and 25 strikeouts, a competition high. Liam was then added to the Australian national team for the 2008 Final Olympic Qualification Tournament, pitching five innings while only allowing one unearned run alongside two hits and a walk while striking out six. Hendriks underwent back surgery that prevented him from playing in the minors in the 2008 season, but made the 2009 World Baseball Classic roster, the youngest Australian player in the Classic.

Hendriks worked his way up the Twins system, and finally made his major league debut on Sept. 5, 2011 as a starting pitcher against the White Sox. For the record, he suffered a 3-0 loss that game, as Jake Peavy struck out nine for the win. Hendriks bounced back and forth between the Twins and Triple-A Rochester until the game of “Liam Hendriks: The Designated-for-Assignment Shuffle” began being played.

On Dec. 13, 2013, the Cubs claimed him when the Twins tried to sneak him through waivers. Ten days later, the Cubs tried to clear him through waivers but the Orioles claimed him. Two months later, in February 2014, the Blue Jays claimed him when the Orioles designated him. Thus, in the span of three months, Hendriks had been part of four different teams without even donning a uniform!

Hendriks split time with the Blue Jays and their Triple-A squad in Buffalo until late July, when he was traded to the Royals along with catcher Eric Kratz for third sacker Danny Valencia. He entered six games for the Royals as they made their World Series push, but otherwise spent the remainder of that season with Triple-A Omaha. After the season was over, the Royals traded Hendriks back to the Blue Jays for catcher Santiago Nessy. Yes, there was indeed a Nessy sighting and one didn’t have to visit Scotland for it!

In 2016, his first full season in a major league uniform, Hendriks performed quite well in middle relief for the Blue Jays. He posted a 2.92 ERA and 1.08 WHIP in 64 23 innings, relinquishing 59 hits and just 11 walks while striking out 71. In November, however, he was traded to Oakland for pitcher Jesse Chavez. For the next two years, Hendriks pitched quite effectively for the Athletics. However, because relievers are often volatile, he did struggle in 2018 due to a right groin strain and spent significant time with Triple-A Nashville.

The following year, 2019, is when Hendriks’ career went into overdrive. After posting just one career save in his first eight major league seasons, he finished that season with 25 saves. That year, Hendriks produced a terrific 1.80 ERA and 0.97 WHIP in 75 games by relinquishing just 61 hits (.201 OBA), 21 walks (6.3%) and an incredible 124 strikeouts (37.3%). To prove that year was no fluke, he saved 14 games in the abbreviated 2020 season, in which he posted an amazing 1.78 ERA and 0.67 WHIP in 24 appearances. He did this by surrendering just 14 hits (.161 OBA), three walks (3.3%) and 37 strikeouts (40.2%). Simply fantastic. His epic performance against the White Sox in Game 3 of the first round of that year’s playoffs broke the hearts of many a Sox fan.

With the White Sox in 2021

On January 15 this year, the White Sox landed Hendriks to the richest contract ever for a relief pitcher: three guaranteed years for $54 million. Due to the uniqueness of the contract however, the salary isn’t a true $18 million per year. This is how it works:

2021: $11 million + $333,333 signing bonus
2022: $13 million + $333,333 signing bonus
2023: $14 million + $333,333 signing bonus
2024: $15 million club option. If the team accepts, they pay him the $15 million that year. If the option is declined, the White Sox would still give him the $15 million as $1.5 million doled out over the next 10 years.

Thus in actuality, it’s a four-year, $54 million deal provided the option is accepted. If not, it’s a three-year, $39 million deal with relatively small disbursements for the next 10 years. For one of the best closers in the game, this wasn’t a bad deal at all. It did irk some fans, admittedly, who were pining for Alex Colomé to return as the closer as he was nearly flawless despite shaky analytics. Believing the team was playing with devil’s luck with Colomé, while also believing in Hendriks’ stuff, the White Sox were proven correct based upon this year’s results.

Hendriks saved a career-high 38 games in 44 opportunities this year. In 69 games totaling 71 innings, he surrendered just 45 hits (.174 OBA) and seven walks (2.6%) while striking out 113 (42,3%). That’s an incredible 16.14 K/BB ratio folks! That puts him near Dennis Eckersley territory with such efficiency. The only negative was that Hendriks allowed 11 homers, but he didn’t allow any beyond August 14. In fact, he did have trouble keeping the ball on the ground this year as evidenced by a 32.6% ground ball rate, which is nearly 7% below his career average.

Now let’s take a look at some of his splits. Being a fly ball pitcher while pitching in a bandbox usually isn’t a recipe for success. Despite allowing seven homers at home, his numbers weren’t vastly different than his road numbers. In home games, he posted a 2.70 ERA, 0.68 WHIP and .168 OBA while whiffing 70 in 40 innings. Away games saw him produce a 2.32 ERA, 0.81 WHIP and .186 OBA. Interestingly his numbers were much better in day games (1.53 ERA, 0.55 WHIP, .146 OBA) vs. under the lights (3.24 ERA, 0.86 WHIP, .194 OBA). Righties didn’t fare well against Hendriks, as they hit just .215 while inducing a 0.93 WHIP against him; however, those results were downright gaudy when comparing how lefties struggled against him (.133 OBA, 0.55 WHIP). Finally, as with essentially all pitchers, getting ahead in the count was key. When ahead, hitters were reduced to a .106 average and 0.36 WHIP; when behind, it was a solid but less stellar .217 average and 1.22 WHIP.

Now let’s dig a little deeper into the success of his three pitches. His four-seam fastball, which Hendriks threw 68.5% of the time according to Baseball Savant, averaged 97.7 mph for the year. It’s an offering he throws equally to righties and lefties, and hitters hit .216/.260/.380 off it — and this is the pitch in which he relinquished the most long balls. However, because of the frequency he threw this pitch and its overall effectiveness (despite the long ball), the pitch produced a -16 Run Value, which is absolutely superb — especially for a reliever. What helped him was his spin rate was in the 83 percentile, which combined with its 97 percentile velocity, was absolutely lethal.

His second-most used pitch, a slider, was used 21.6% of the time and was used much more frequently against righties. This offering, which produced nearly a 9% variance in velocity from his heater, was used to great effect. How does a slash line of .086/.118/129 sound? Yep, I agree — absolutely awesome! Despite the relative infrequency in which it was used, it still produced a -7 Run Value.

Hendriks’ third pitch, a curveball, was used just 9.8% of the time and used primarily to neutralize lefties. With an 85.8 mph velocity, it was his slowest selection but it worked because of its movement. He did keep it in the upper portion of the zone, but since lefties traditionally like the ball down, this wasn’t an issue. Of course saying it wasn’t an issue is simply a gross understatement, as opponents slashed just .103/.130/.207 against it. This also explains why lefties hit him so poorly this year.

These are the areas Hendriks ranked highly, based upon his percentile rankings: according to Baseball Savant:

  • xERA (100)
  • xwOBA (100)
  • BB% (100)
  • xOBP (100)
  • xBA (99)
  • K% (99)
  • Whiff% (98)
  • Chase Rate (97)
  • Fastball Velocity (97)
  • xSLG (90)
  • Fastball Spin (83)

Based on everything above, it’s no wonder he made an appearance at the All-Star Game, was named to the All-MLB First Team, and won the AL Rivera Rivera Award and Sporting News AL Reliever of the Year Award. Metrics haven’t really caught up to the value of a closer. Thus, despite all the accolades and upper-echelon rankings in so many pitching categories, he earned a relatively modest 2.6 bWAR for the year. Considering each bWAR point is worth approximately $7.7 million on the free agent market per FanGraphs, and taking into account his 2021 salary of $11,333,333, Hendriks did provide a surplus value of nearly $8.7 million.

What does his future have in store?

Metrics don’t take kindly to relief pitchers — even ones that excel like Hendriks has done the past three years. In fact, despite posting great results as a closer in the past three years and solid results as a middle reliever in the four years before that, he’s only compiled 9.7 bWAR during that seven-year span. With that said, there’s something to be said for Hendriks being both a positive and vocal presence in the bullpen and clubhouse. A closer is often considered one of the most unheralded performers on a great team when he’s going well, but one of the most frustrating when he’s struggling. After all, there are few things more devastating in a baseball season than leads blown in the ninth inning.

As things stand during the lockout, the White Sox bullpen is loaded on paper. In addition to southpaws like Aaron Bummer and Garrett Crochet who’ll be given further analysis in upcoming posts, the Sox bullpen is loaded with higher-leverage relievers like Craig Kimbrel and Kendall Graveman. Reynaldo López performed well last year in the swingman role, while other pitchers who seem primed to compete for lower-leverage situations like José Ruiz, Ryan Burr and perhaps Jimmy Lambert. Really, the bullpen looks fantastic on paper and that doesn’t even include any potential options that could still be available via free agency. Bullpens are often volatile, as Sox fans saw last year, so it’s difficult to predict just how fantastic or disappointing it will be in 2022. Of course, it’s to be determined what Hendriks’ and Kimbrel’s roles will be in 2022 — provided Kimbrel doesn’t get traded before the season starts.

Hendriks’ salary will be $13,333,333 in 2022 and increasing to $14,333,333 the next year. If the club accepts his option in 2024, he will be earning $15 million that year; if not, the team will be distributing that amount to him in 10 equal and small installments, essentially write-off money. Thus, it seems likely that Hendriks will be a back-end fixture for the next three years. Yet despite his salary, Kimbrel will earn even more ($16 million) in 2022. Thus it’ll be intriguing to see how Tony La Russa juggles the bullpen to produce the most optimal results. Due to bullpen volatility, it may behoove the team to seek additional reinforcements via free agency — especially if Kimbrel is traded before the season starts. Right-handed reliever options that are still un-signed will be detailed in the next Deep Dive.