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Quick Look: Liam Hendriks, Set-Up Man

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Can the flame thrower from down under be a trusted set-up option?

Boston Red Sox v Oakland Athletics Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Liam Hendriks has been Oakland’s best relief pitcher in 2019, and it really isn’t that close.

If you’re a Hendriks apologist like myself, you aren’t too surprised. Hendriks was Oakland’s best reliever in his first two years with the team also, before turning in a forgettable 2018 season. Hendriks did everything right, but he wasn’t trusted with many high leverage chances. With Blake Treinen and Lou Trivino looking all too human lately it is Hendriks who has solidified the back-end of the bullpen.

With 3 holds and a win in 7 games pitched this month Hendriks has been trusted to protect leads where rather than used for mop-up duty, or as the opener. In that time frame Hendriks has struck out 30% of batters faced. He also has yet allow a home run since April. Everything is looking up for Hendriks, so here comes the cold water.

The advanced numbers don’t buy Hendriks’ newfound dominance. The strikeouts are up a bit and are supported by an 11.6% whiff rate. However, his walk rate is a career-high while his home run is a career-low despite allowing more flyballs than ever. All of that results in a 1.69 ERA/2.73 FIP/4.86 xFIP. I think there is something to this, however, and it’s not just luck.

Pitch Mix

Hendriks, as a reliever, has typically been a fastball/slider guy but one who threw mostly fastballs. He still throws fastballs more than 60% of the time, and sliders 25% but he has reintroduced his curveball as an important part of his repertoire. One other significant change: he has abandoned his sinker in favor of more four-seam fastballs.

Liam Hendriks’ Pitch Mix

Season Team FA% SI% CH% SL% CU%
Season Team FA% SI% CH% SL% CU%
2015 Blue Jays 44.3 % 21.9 % 1.8 % 27.2 % 4.8 %
2016 Athletics 58.5 % 17.1 % 1.3 % 18.1 % 5.0 %
2017 Athletics 58.2 % 15.8 % 0.4 % 22.0 % 3.4 %
2018 Athletics 48.3 % 21.8 % 1.6 % 26.5 % 1.8 %
2019 Athletics 60.1 % 6.2 % 0.2 % 24.4 % 9.1 %
Fangraphs.com

You can see the year-over-year decrease in sinkers and changeups. This would account for his extreme change in groundball/flyball mix. Additionally he’s throwing curveballs more than any other time in his career as a reliever.

Statcast Data

Hendriks has near-elite fastball velocity and great fastball spin. Perhaps that’s why he’s made his four-seamer an even bigger part of the picture. Four-seam fastballs with high spin result in higher flyball rates and we’re seeing that to be true with Hendriks. His four-seam fastball is generating a higher rate of fly balls than it ever has before (56.9%).

On those fly balls Hendriks is suppressing distance. Of pitchers with at least 25 fly balls allowed Hendriks allows the lowest average distance at 294 ft. He’s the only pitcher to allow an average distance that’s less than 300 ft. His fly ball average exit velocity of 87.2 MPH is tied with Jalen Beeks for the lowest and his .379 slugging percentage allowed is second only to Beeks.

Conclusion

We’ve seen a level of success from Hendriks before that was mostly built upon a high strikeout rate and low-ish walk rates. Now we’re seeing him add another element to that mix. Not only is Hendriks allowing contact at a lower rate than ever before, he’s limiting the damage on that contact better than he ever has in his career.

This is important because the A’s are experiencing a crisis in the bullpen. There aren’t too many arms than can be completely trusted with leads, so adding another option to the overall mix is important if the team aims to win ball games. It’s about time Hendriks was that option.