The 2019 Oakland A’s set another franchise record this week, though this one didn’t have anything to do with hitting lots of homers. Instead it came in regard to pitching, as closer Liam Hendriks set the all-time club mark for most strikeouts in a season by a reliever.
On Tuesday against the Royals, Hendriks recorded his 116th strikeout in relief, breaking the previous record of 115 held by Hall of Fame closer Rollie Fingers. Hendriks actually has 118 Ks on the year, but two of them came when he was serving as a 1st-inning opener, and so technically he was a starter when he earned them.
In over a century of A’s history, there have only been nine instances of a reliever fanning 100 batters, split between six individuals. Of course, relievers weren’t as much of a thing for most of the 20th century, so the list didn’t even begin until the ‘60s and thus doesn’t feature any Philadelphia names. There’s only one from the Kansas City days.
- 116: Liam Hendriks, 2019
- 115: Rollie Fingers, 1975
- 113: Rollie Fingers, 1972
- 113: Rollie Fingers, 1976
- 105: Dennis Eckersley, 1987
- 104: Rollie Fingers, 1973
- 102: Michael Wuertz, 2009
- 101: Wes Stock, 1964
- 100: Blake Treinen, 2018
(The next two spots are also Rollie (‘74) and Eck (‘92), followed by Billy Koch and Andrew Bailey to round out the 90+ club. Here’s the full franchise list.)
The final name on that 100+ list serves as a reminder of the weird journey that led to this point, and the general volatility of relievers. Last year Blake Treinen put up one of the best reliever seasons ever, setting a record for lowest ERA in 80+ innings (0.78) and becoming the first ever to combine 30+ saves, 100+ strikeouts, and a sub-1.00 ERA. At times it felt like he dragged the A’s pitching staff to the postseason all on his own, and he was rewarded not only with an All-Star berth but also some Cy Young votes.
And then Trienen disappeared in 2019. He lost control of the strike zone, saw his ERA rise more than four runs, ceded the closer job in June, and dealt with injuries to his elbow, shoulder, and back that eventually led to him being shut down in mid-September.
In his place, Hendriks rose from the ashes, one year after struggling so hard that he was designated for assignment and went unclaimed by all the other 29 teams. Armed with increased velocity and improved breaking balls, and having ditched his old sinker, Hendriks has nearly matched Treinen’s dominance from last summer. Their numbers line up uncannily well (using Hendriks’ full line including his “starts”):
Treinen, 2018: 0.78 ERA, 80⅓ ip, 100 Ks, 21 BB, 2 HR, 1.82 FIP, 3.6 fWAR
Hendriks, 2019: 1.66 ERA, 81⅓ ip, 118 Ks, 21 BB, 5 HR, 1.96 FIP, 3.5 fWAR
The similarity is incredible, especially when considering the historical context. According to fWAR these are two of the seven best reliever seasons of the 21 century so far, and they came for the same team in consecutive years but by different pitchers. It’s rare to find one of these guys, and it’s unheard of to lose him and then immediately find another one. Hendriks also picked up the All-Star torch from Treinen, nabbing a berth this summer just as his predecessor had done in 2018.
Wuertz is another example of the unpredictability of relievers. The right-hander, who used his slider about as often as anyone in history, spent five years being quietly good for the Cubs, and then put together a monster performance for the A’s in 2009. Two years later he threw his final pitch in the majors at age 32.
All of that helps put Fingers’ greatness into perspective. His prominence on this particular strikeout list is slightly misleading, since he played in the days of 1970s firemen, when relievers routinely threw multiple frames per game and went well over 100 innings each season. That gave him more opportunities to rack up big K totals, and in fact only one of his years cited above exceeded a rate of a strikeout per inning pitched.
But that larger workload also makes it that much more impressive that Rollie stayed consistently strong for so long. After being awesome for six straight years for Oakland (and winning three rings with spectacular postseason stats), he went to the NL and was awesome for another five out of six straight years, including winning the 1981 MVP and Cy Young for the Brewers. It’s no wonder he was a second-ballot Hall of Famer at a time when relievers weren’t really part of the Hall, as Hoyt Wilhelm was the only other one enshrined before then.
Ditto Eckersley, who followed Rollie as the third reliever to reach the HOF. He only shows up on this triple-digit strikeout list once, and it also took him over 100 innings to get there, but A’s fans remember his six straight years of absolute dominance after converting to relief late in his career.
(Fun fact: From 1973-76, when Rollie was striking out the world, the A’s pitching coach was none other than Wes Stock, who also appears on the franchise reliever list above.)
As for Hendriks, he exists in a different era than Rollie or Eck, where relievers work shorter outings, throw harder than ever, and strike out batters at enormous rates. His 116 Ks don’t even lead the majors this year, as Josh Hader of the Brewers has him beat with 130. Since 2000, Hendriks’ total is only tied for 20th among relievers (so far), behind 13 different pitchers — led by 2004 Brad Lidge, with 157 in 94⅔ innings for the Astros. Expand to include the 1990s, and only eight more instances join the list above Hendriks, with three of them from 1999 and three of the others requiring triple-digits innings (and the remaining two are Rob Dibble).
Even among a world of heightened strikeouts, though, Hendriks’ performance this year is obviously impressive. He’s fanning 13 batters per nine innings, and 37.1% of all the batters he faces, and his fastball has reached all the way up to 99.9 mph with a career-high average of 96.4. And in addition to his new A’s record, he also set the mark for most Ks by an Australian pitcher, which had previously stood at 111 by Damian Moss in 2002 — and Moss was a starter that year for the Braves. (Grant Balfour topped out at 82, for the Rays a couple years before coming to Oakland.)
And of course, the season isn’t quite over yet. There are nine games left, and the A’s are a good team in a tight postseason race. There could yet be plenty more work for their elite closer to extend his new franchise record. And that gives all of us another week-plus to enjoy watching one of the best relievers in Athletics history.