If you were looking for a sign that Liam Hendriks was for real after his 2019 breakout, then this one is about 50 feet tall and blinding you with neon lights.
The Oakland A’s closer was named American League Reliever of the Month on Wednesday, for the combined month of July/August. With the A’s season opening July 24, that makes it roughly a five-week period.
This is the second time Hendriks has received this honor, with the first coming in June 2019.
The distinction should come as no surprise, as we’ve watched Hendriks blossom into one of the most dominant relievers in the sport over the last couple years. His 2019 breakout rivaled the historic 2018 performance of former teammate Blake Treinen, and he’s been even better so far this summer.
Hendriks, 2020: 1.10 ERA, 16⅓ ip, 23 Ks, 3 BB, 1 HR, 8 hits, 1.67 FIP
All of those numbers are small-sample improvements over last year, including a rise in his strikeout rate to 39% of batters he faces. He’s already racked up an MLB-leading 10 saves, which is likely the primary factor in this Reliever of the Month award, and he’s done it while blowing only one for an elite 91% success rate. That single homer on his record was the only slip-up, tying the game in the 9th inning on Opening Day, but even then the A’s came back to win in extras. And finally, Statcast loves him, with his .240 xwOBA placing him in the top 5% of all pitchers.
With the right-hander leading the way, and a bevy of other hot relievers surrounding him, Oakland’s bullpen has been the best in the majors so far in 2020. Their 1.87 ERA is the lowest by a quarter of a run, their 2.92 FIP leads by one-sixth of a run, and they’re second in fWAR (2.9). Most crucially, their 4.50 Win Probability Added is half-again more than the runner-up, showing how their sparkling work has also come when they’ve needed it in frequent high-leverage situations.
Relievers are the most volatile performers in baseball from year to year, and a breakout star might not always stay that way long-term. It was fair to wonder whether Hendriks could live up to the lofty standard he set in 2019, especially after we saw Treinen inexplicably lose his touch last summer, but so far the only Liam in MLB history has silenced any possible questions. He has a very particular set of skills, that make him a nightmare for opposing batters; he will look for the strike zone, he will find it, and he will K you.
By the way, Treinen is great again this year for the Dodgers. Relievers, man.