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Liam Hendriks: Elite Relief Pitcher

Chicago Cubs v Oakland Athletics
Liam Hendriks has been among baseball’s best relief pitchers since 2015.
Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

Through the first half of 2016 Liam Hendriks carried a 6.00 ERA and allowed a .354 wOBA (.354 is a solidly above average mark, for a hitter) — how can he be elite? In the second half he decreased his ERA by nearly four full runs and his wOBA by 101 points. Unlucky doesn’t even begin to describe his first half results.

Several things improved for Hendriks in the second half of the season. His BABIP dropped from an unsightly .414 to a much more sustainable .281. His K-BB% increased by 4%, his home run rate decreased by more than half, and his LOB% jumped by more than 10%. By the end of 2016 he had returned to being the relief pitcher the Oakland A’s acquired more than a year ago.

Strangely, Hendriks’ 2015 and 2016 seasons are almost identical by a few metrics.

Liam Hendriks’ 2015-2016 Stats

Season IP K BB fWAR
Season IP K BB fWAR
2015 64.2 71 11 1.5
2016 64.2 71 14 1.3

Transitioning from starting pitching to reliving has turned Hendriks’ career around quickly. From 2011-2014, among starters with at least 150 IP, Hendriks allowed the third highest wOBA and the second highest ERA. Since becoming a reliever in 2015 he’s been among baseball’s best at doing what pitchers should do well: getting lots of outs by striking batters out and limiting walks. He ranks very highly in IP, K%, BB%, FIP, xFIP, and fWAR over the past two years.

Liam Hendriks’ 2015-2016 MLB Ranks

2015-2016 Result 129.1 26.5 4.7 2.5 3.15 2.8
2015-2016 MLB Rank (min 60 IP) 33rd 57th 10th 14th 27th 14th
2015-2016 OAK Rank 1st 1st 1st 1st 1st 1st

The last row is the most telling, to me. Among current Oakland relievers Hendriks posted the best marks in each of those six categories since 2015. The only former-Athletic that bested Hendriks in anything is Evan Scribner, who in hindsight, shouldn’t have been discarded so easily.

I have been banging the drum with regard to Hendriks for a while now, but it wasn’t until recently that I discovered just how good he’s been as a reliever within the context of Major League Baseball. By fWAR he was the 17th best reliever in baseball in 2015 and then 25th best in 2016. As 2016 went on and Hendriks improved he was relied upon more and more, which is a trend I believe will continue in 2017.

He’s a large reason why the 2016 A’s boasted one of the best bullpens in baseball and I expect he’ll be an even bigger part of the team’s 2017 success.