Here’s A Liam Hendriks Post For Some Reason

Entering 2016, Liam Hendriks was one of my favorite relief sleepers. In fact, I fantasized in my Bold Predictions piece that he’d enter 2017 as an elite closer. And while the results are laughable in hindsight, you can understand why I was bullish on him.

Coming off an outstanding 2015 in Toronto, Hendriks entered a remade Oakland bullpen headlined by a formerly dominant but unequivocally injury prone Sean Doolittle. His other competition included renowned ball four-enthusiast, John Axford, rookie Ryan Dull, and a resurgent but Medicare-eligible Ryan Madson. All possessed as many risks as virtues and it seemed, given the lingering questions surrounding them, that Liam Hendriks’ big fastball, elite command, and strong ground ball rate should have put him towards the top of the queue once the inevitable arm injury befell Doolittle. So what happened?


Early Season Trouble
Mar/Apr 9.26 3.23 3.15 24.60% 0.00% 24.60% 0.525 35.70% 51.90%
May 5.79 1.65 2.00 26.30% 5.30% 21.10% 0.385 61.50% 50.00%

Well, that’s one way to lose your place in line. Through the first two months of the season, Hendriks sported an unsightly 8.27 ERA and 1.78 WHIP, hardly the performance typical of an elite reliever. And as you might expect, manager Bob Melvin shunned him in high leverage situations. Of the 16.1 innings he pitched through May, only two-thirds of an inning came in what we’d define as medium leverage; his other 15.2 were all in low leverage situations.

Now to be fair, Hendriks likely pitched the early part of the season through an elbow injury. While he maintained an early season fastball velocity on par with his career average, he hit the disabled list on May 10th due to elbow soreness. Still, it’s not like he pitched poorly. Hendriks struck out a quarter of the batters he faced while walking just one. While his ground ball rates decreased marginally, he limited hard contact (though we’re talking about sample sizes too small to draw any dependable batted ball insights from anyway).

Let’s not overthink this: Hendriks, despite possibly pitching through elbow soreness, struck out a ton of guys out while figuratively walking no one. And while we don’t want to put too much stock into batted ball data acquired over just a handful of appearances, we can say with certainty that he didn’t deserve the .491 BABIP nor 51.5% strand rate that saddled him with that 8.27 ERA through the early part of the season. No matter how well he pitched the rest of the way, and Hendriks pitched very well, those 11 early appearances ultimately sunk his 2016. At least from a fantasy perspective.

After returning from his DL stint, Hendriks’ luck evened out and his surface stats more closely resembled what we had hoped to see all along. From June onwards, Hendriks posted a 2.33/2.88/3.73 ERA, FIP, and xFIP with a 26% strikeout rate. His manager must have noticed as well since Hendriks frequently found himself pitching in more important situations.

Monthly Leverage Splits
Month Med & High Leverage Innings Total Innings % Med & High Leverage
Mar/Apr 0.2 11.2 5.72%
May 0.0 4.2 0.00%
Jun 1.0 6.1 15.79%
Jul 7.2 14.2 52.27%
Aug 6.2 14.1 46.52%
Sept/Oct 8.1 13 64.10%

From July through October, Madson and Dull were the only other righties in Oakland’s pen to pitch a higher percentage of their innings in medium and high leverage situations, suggesting that while Hendriks was still only the third option at the end of games, he regained Melvin’s confidence.

By almost any measure, Hendriks pitched better than both even with the calamitous start to the season that preceded a six-week stint on the disabled list. Madson and Dull’s combined 1.3 WAR merely equalled Hendriks’ and both fell short of his FIP, xFIP, and DRA. Each relied upon better BABIPs and strand rates to best Hendriks’ ERA.

That said, there are areas in which Hendriks could improve. We saw both his ground ball rate and swinging strike rate take hits in 2016. Both could be remedied by throwing his slider more frequently. In 2015, he threw it 25% of the time and with resounding success. It generated a 58% grounder per ball-in-play percentage, ranking 15th out of 168 pitchers. As a result, hitters managed a meager .056 isolated slugging against, good for 34th in the league among sliders.

Overall, Hendriks cut his use of the pitch by nine points in 2016, throwing it just 16.3% of the time. But he relied on it more heavily upon returning from the DL than he did prior to the injury. I can only speculate as to why but regardless of the reason, the thing is, his slider may actually be a better pitch now than it was even in 2015. Its whiff rate jumped from an unimpressive 16.7% in 2015 to 22.9% last year. Astoundingly, he did so while marginally improving its pop-up frequency and already elite ground ball rate.

Liam’s Slider – Percentiles
Whiffs per Swing Grounders/Ball-In-Play Pop-Up/Ball-In-Play
2015 42nd 91st 33rd
2016 95th 92nd 42nd

Context is important here. Had he throw his slider less frequently upon his return, I might be concerned that fear over re-aggravating the injury caused him to employ a less effective pitch mix. But that he doubled down on the pitch while also finding ways to improve it, makes me bullish on his 2017 prospects.

That said, if we’re going to talk about improvements to his slider, it’d be disingenuous to leave out his fastball’s rising ineffectiveness. In 2015, Hendriks’ four-seamer ranked in the 99th percentile in ground ball rate and 68th percentile in whiffs per swing. Fast forward one year and it dropped to the 50th and 45th percentiles of each metric, respectively. It doesn’t appear due to any lack of velocity or movement, the latter of which actually increased marginally. Rather, he frequently left it up in the zone and over the plate. Unsurprisingly, hitters teed off on it to the tune of a .150 ISO up from a microscopic .022 the year before. Righties in particular enjoyed hitting his fastball.

screen-shot-2017-01-03-at-8-43-05-pm screen-shot-2017-01-03-at-8-42-22-pm

That’s 2015’s 4-seamer ISO per pitch against righties on the left and 2016’s on the right. Clearly, it’s a pretty stark contrast and like most pitchers, Hendriks would benefit from keeping the ball down next season. A return to 2015’s fastball as part of a slider-heavy pitch mix could be all that stands in the way between an excellent reliever and one of the league’s best.

There’s still some time left in the off-season for Billy Beane and David Forst to conduct their Annual Bullpen Renovation Spectacular. But with both Madson and Axford signed through the season and Dull not eligible for arbitration until 2019, the core of Oakland’s pen appears in place. Financially, it makes sense for Madson or Axford to close but Hendriks is still by far the most talented of the bunch. If you prefer betting on talent over opportunity, roll the dice with Liam Hendriks. He’s a compelling arm hidden among a relatively weak lot.

Rylan writes for Fangraphs and The Hardball Times. Look for his weekly Deep League Waiver Wire and The Chacon Zone columns this season.

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Andrew Dominijannimember
7 years ago

I loved this, for some reason.