White Sox saves Liam Hendriks for safe situations that don’t exist

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The White Sox took the lead 2-4 on their six-game road trip to Minneapolis and New York, with three of those losses being the walk-off variant. The good thing about getting away with it three times is that your team had a realistic attempt to win these games. The bad thing about going away three times is going away three times.

In all three games, Tony La Russa refused to open the ninth inning of a draw on the road with his closer on the hill. In fact, he continued to drift away from it over the course of the six games, although he wasn’t rewarded for his decision the first two times.

May 18th: La Russa stays with Aaron Bummer, despite Bummer losing a two run lead in the eighth inning. He gives up a leadoff single after which Liam Hendriks steps in and can only record two of the three outs required for additional innings.

May 21: Though Hendriks is warm, La Russa stays with Evan Marshall, whose eighth inning ended in a screaming liner that turned into a lucky double game. Marshall gives up three singles in a row to lose the game.

23. May: Bummer, with the help of Yasmani Grandal, is working on a lead-off single in the eighth that limits attempts to steal the third. After throwing 17 squares into the bottom of the eighth, he’ll hit four or three thugs if you don’t count the deliberate walk. He fell behind all of them and only retired one of them. The bases were loaded with one for Hendriks who accompanied Aaron Judge on five fields to end the game.

It would be one thing if Hendriks had dealt with a regular workload, but he hadn’t served since Wednesday or the day after the first tie situation described above. In the past nine days he had fought a total of seven fights. He had the time and space to expand if La Russa wanted to.

It is unclear whether Hendriks would have been more successful because he didn’t exactly get out of hand this year. I have a recurring genre of tweets where I write the date alongside my ongoing ambivalence about Hendrik’s abilities.

The term “any good” is of course relative. Even in a lesser form, he would be qualified for most teams to pitch in crucial situations, as “28 strikes to three walks over 18 innings” pretty much guarantees adequacy.

Closing, however, is essentially a pass / fail job, especially when the approach is at the heart of an entire off-season and there are some strange developments that cloud the situation to a surprising degree.

LOCATION

There’s the thing that the standard normally open measuring stick – the quintessential three-out-of-nine-inning save situation – doesn’t really apply to Hendriks, even though we’re nearing the end of the second month of his stay. Last year, it was only a week before Alex Colomé encountered a group of three nine-inning saves in five days. Likewise, Colomé pitched three consecutive ninth innings from April 14-16, 2019, all of which were goalless.

We are 45 games in the season and Hendriks only had a few normal saves for the White Sox. Of his nine saves, only three were the ninth inning of a game by three runs or less, with only two such opportunities in May. He’s also saved three double-header games in the seventh inning, which always feels a bit like cheating, and three games where he stepped in in the eighth and pitched the ninth.

Even if you count his two blown saves, in which he gave up homers in the ninth inning, this is still not a typical approach where fans can determine their comfort whether Hendriks has done so understood that.

AESTHETICS

If Hendriks has problems, it is not because he suddenly ages like a bottle of Perth Pink (“This is not a wine to drink, this is a wine to be discarded and avoided”). Hendriks has scored an impressive 161 goals against 24 walks over 110 innings in his last two seasons in Oakland. If you extrapolate his current totals over the same workload, you get 171 strikes and 18 walks. This part of his game doesn’t seem to have slipped.

But there seems to be a difference in how it is played in actual game situations. The most glaring example is the total number of home runs (four after only one last year). There is also the problem that Hendriks fought to get a strike when he needed one:

  • 2020: 24 appearances, two without a strike
  • 2021: 19 appearances, five without a strike

It might be a little unfair to give Hendrik’s single batter performance on Sunday the same weight as a full inning elsewhere, but he had already doubled his total K-less games so far, so I don’t think it’s insincere to add the newest game even if it has taken a different form.

Whether it’s four or five, it’s still weird because the typical markers of fights aren’t obvious. His fastball speed is actually up a bit, it has the exact same swing and miss percentage (30.1 percent), and Statcast loves almost everything he does.

If you’re looking for signs of fastball slipping, there are a few more dark crevasses:

  • Percentage of tendency to storage: 30.9% in 2020; 17.7% in 2021
  • Extension: 7.0 feet in 2020; 6.7 feet in 2021

They are not columns that I would look at if Hendriks hadn’t scraped a bit, or if Hendriks hadn’t mentioned the extension himself, so I’m not entirely satisfied with identifying these factors and closing the case.

But if I had to guess this limited amount of evidence, then Hendriks’ Fastball just seems like an excellent place, as opposed to baseball’s most devastating proposition. Either that, or the moment he throws it more than ever, the clubs are a little better tuned for it, so the results per pitch decrease. And it’s probably not great that he has several days between shows trying to figure everything out.

There is some evidence that Hendrik’s easiest inning of the season was his nine-pitch tackle against Minnesota, in which ball breaking exceeded fastballs. He had also served unsuccessfully the day before, so he had some knowledge of what hadn’t worked.

HOW CAN WE KNOW FASTER?

LamarJohnson noted in his post on Shop Talk on Sunday evening that Hendriks’ use is not wildly outside of what the other top teams do with their closers. And while Hendriks only has nine saves, he leads the American League with 16 games completed.

I suspect that the lack of standard save situations is in large part due to a random distribution of the failed scores, but it’s also possible that the White Sox offensive’s imbalance against right and left-handed people is generating many large leads and tight deficits, especially if other helpers lose close leads earlier in the game.

If I were Tony La Russa – and I don’t wish for that, not a second – I couldn’t wait for this group of normal belay situations to arrive because this is a great way to make the highest-paying off-season supplement completely irrelevant. That doesn’t mean calling Hendriks at five in the eighth inning with the White Sox, but I would probably use him in tie games, especially in the ninth inning on the road. Sure, you’d ideally want to have his strikeout stuff fresh for a 10th inning with a runner in second place, but the three walk-offs show that the 10th inning is purely theoretical until it actually arrives. The White Sox are 1-4 in games with seven innings and also in games after eight.

If Hendriks is not used in games, he could actually fluctuate because they are not perfectly tailored to his job description, and its effect remains more on the theoretical side. The whole reason the White Sox signed him is because he wasn’t your typical seamstress. The lack of typical situations shouldn’t bother him.

(Photo by Quinn Harris / USA TODAY Sports)





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