Liam Hendriks Finally Faltered

Liam Hendriks
Gregory Fisher-USA TODAY Sports

Liam Hendriks got shelled last night. After it looked like the White Sox had put the game away — they led 8–2 after the bottom of the eighth inning — the Guardians made things interesting by stringing together hits, errors, and walks to trim the deficit to 8–4. With two outs, Tony La Russa called for Hendriks, who promptly surrendered a single and a grand slam to tie the game.

It was the the first blemish on what otherwise would have been a sterling week for Hendriks. From May 2 to May 7, he’d been an absolute workhorse, making five appearances in six days without allowing a run. We’ll probably never know whether Monday’s game — his sixth in eight days — was affected by fatigue; Hendriks wouldn’t likely admit that even if it were the case. But it’s reasonable to wonder whether something could have gone differently, somewhere in the sequence of events, that gave the White Sox a better chance of hanging on last night.

Six games in eight days is an effective cap on reliever usage these days. No reliever has thrown seven games in eight days in the past three years; six games in eight days has happened 23 times over that same stretch. Hendriks himself accounts for three of those, with the rest a hodgepodge mix of closers and low-leverage middle relievers and Raisel Iglesias as the only other pitcher with multiple entries.

That makes it sound like Hendriks does this all the time, but that’s truly not the case. The first time he went six games in eight days was August 8, 2020, at the start of the pandemic-shortened season. That was a ton of work, and while he was excellent in that stretch, to the tune of a 1.50 ERA, he got a huge amount of time off on either side. He started this stretch after five full days off and got three days of rest afterwards.

The second time Hendriks went six games in eight days? Three days ago, May 7. In something of a mirror of 2020, Hendriks got a solid chunk of rest from April 25 to April 29, while the Sox were on a streak of either losing or winning big. But since then, he’s been used actively, with a five-games-in-six-days sprint in the middle. I set out to see whether the White Sox were excessively aggressive in any of those games, using Hendriks when someone else in their solid, though shallow, bullpen would have sufficed.

May 2: Angels

Hendriks had thrown in one game over the past week. The White Sox took a 3–0 lead into the ninth, and with Dylan Cease having pitched a seven-inning gem, plenty of arms were available out of the ‘pen. Nonetheless, Hendriks was so rested that just getting him some work seems very reasonable. Nothing to see here.

May 3: Cubs

Appearing on back-to-back days is nothing too strange for Hendriks; he’s made roughly a quarter of his appearances since joining the White Sox on zero days’ rest. That’s standard for a high-leverage reliever; Aroldis Chapman, Emmanuel Clase, Aaron Loup, Tyler Rogers, Brad Hand, Kenley Jansen, and plenty of other similar names are in the same ballpark.

Did the White Sox need Hendriks to prevent the bottom of the Cubs’ lineup (Jason Heyward, Nico Hoerner, Yan Gomes) from scoring two runs? Probably not. I probably wouldn’t have used Hendriks here; if I use a reliever to get him back into the groove, like the previous day’s appearance, I’d tend to give them the next day off. Why drift from under-use to over-use so quickly? But this is just how La Russa uses Hendriks: in a save situation, regardless of the difficulty of the save. Nothing too unusual to see here despite my objections, and I’m sure Hendriks was clamoring for the work as well.

May 4: Cubs

Now we’re getting into the heart of the matter. With a one-run lead and facing some of the Cubs’ best bats (Willson Contreras and Frank Schwindel led off the inning), and with Aaron Bummer, Matt Foster, and Kendall Graveman already done, Hendriks was the obvious choice. Had he worked the two previous days? Sure. Was this the first time he’d made back-to-back-to-back appearances since early in 2021? Sure. But if you used Hendriks in the previous, low-leverage save situations, surely you should use him here.

For what it’s worth, this is the argument against using Hendriks in those three-run-lead games, or with a two-run lead against weak competition. You’re always weighing using a closer against when you might be able to use them in the future, should you run into worse trouble. This is the most obvious situation for a high-leverage reliever like Hendriks. His two previous outings had been low-stress, with 22 pitches between them. I think that almost every manager in baseball would use Hendriks here, but it should mean tighter usage bands for him in the next few days.

May 6: Red Sox

Now this one feels strange to me. The White Sox had the day off on May 5, so most of their bullpen was well-rested. With a 4–1 lead in the eighth, La Russa turned to Graveman, his second-best reliever. Graveman gave up a run, and La Russa turned it over to Hendriks for the ninth with a two-run lead. Going with your two best pitchers despite a three-run lead in the eighth is overkill on a team with a shallow bullpen.

La Russa has a clear bullpen hierarchy, which added to the challenge. He uses Hendriks and Graveman aggressively, more or less whenever the Sox are ahead. Bummer qualifies for that role as well, though he’s on the IL at the moment; Joe Kelly will likely replace him as one of the high-priority arms.

After that, it’s more of a muddle. Foster and Tanner Banks lead the relief corps in innings pitched, but they’ve both been used mainly in low-leverage spots. Reynaldo López and José Ruiz are technically nice backups to Graveman and Hendriks, but they haven’t been used that way. Ruiz had only thrown twice in the last week when Graveman came in with a three-run lead. He’s been excellent this year, with a mid-2s ERA and peripherals to match. López has been worse, and wouldn’t have minded a day off; like Hendriks, he’d thrown on the 3rd and 4th, though he didn’t throw on the 2nd and only faced a single batter on the 4th.

One of those two should almost certainly have spelled either Graveman or Hendriks. They’re solid relievers, the game wasn’t exactly in the balance, and the Red Sox were sending a punchless bottom of the lineup (Franchy Cordero, Jackie Bradley Jr., and Christian Vázquez) to the plate in the ninth. This is a pure “the closer’s the closer because he’s the closer” moment; you can’t use Hendriks in every save situation. If you’re going to bring him in with a three-run lead against the Angels, you have to be willing to let him sit up two against the Red Sox, particularly when he’s only a day removed from three straight appearances.

May 7: Red Sox

We’re getting to over-use territory. Five games in six days is a ton of work for a reliever. This is the first time Hendriks has done this in the last three years. No one has done it twice over that window; only ten pitchers have done it, period.

In La Russa’s defense, this was a spot where you want your best reliever. The White Sox were protecting a two-run lead in the tenth, with a zombie runner starting the inning on second and Rafael Devers, Xander Bogaerts, and J.D. Martinez due up. This was a clear situation for your best pitcher, but Hendriks probably shouldn’t have been available. He’d thrown 21 pitches the previous day, and again, it was his fifth appearance in six days. It’s too much to ask! Bullpens are nine deep these days; those other arms have to throw sometime. But La Russa had once again used the guys he trusts at least a little bit; López and Ruiz had already thrown, and Graveman had thrown 20 pitches the prior day (one fewer than Hendriks, if you’re keeping score at home).

At some point, you have to stop mashing the “send in the closer” button. At multiple turns throughout this journey, La Russa was faced with a situation that would normally be a great spot for his best reliever. In seemingly each case, he’d previously over-used Hendriks in more marginal spots, which meant picking between healthy rest and the best pitcher for the big spot. In every case, he chose instant gratification over long-term rest for Hendriks. It worked this time, as Hendriks escaped the jam without a single run.

May 8: Red Sox

Finally, the madness had to stop. Even with a one-run lead in the bottom of the ninth, the exact situation Hendriks lives for, he couldn’t go. He had simply pitched too frequently in the past week. Hendriks is a madman. He wears his heart on his sleeve on the mound, and he’s phenomenally driven. There’s every chance that he would have pitched if La Russa had called his name. But no one — no one at all — has thrown six games in seven days in the past three years. That’s just not how modern relievers operate.

Instead, La Russa used the guys he’d mostly prefer to avoid. Ruiz came in for three batters and two outs (Martinez doubled to lead off the inning). Bennett Sousa then came in for a lefty and retired a pinch-hitting Kevin Plawecki for the final out of the game. As it turns out, you can get saves with your lesser relievers!

May 9: Guardians

Ah, the fateful day. As we’ve already covered, Hendriks gave up a game-tying grand slam. Should he even have been in the game in the first place? Probably not. He had worked so much over the past week that I believe most managers would be getting him rest, and despite what actually happened, an 8–4 lead with two outs and two on isn’t a particularly high-leverage spot. Graveman was available and hadn’t thrown in the past two days. He’s also a really good reliever; La Russa trusts him quite a bit. Sousa could have gone; he’d thrown only four pitches the day before to record his save. Heck, Ruiz had thrown only seven.

I’d have used Graveman and not thought twice about it. But it was a save situation, and the closer hadn’t thrown the previous day, so what did you think La Russa was going to do? He went to Hendriks, the guy the team pays a ton of money to be its best reliever. Hey, he was on one day of rest!

I’m not sure whether the previous days of use hurt Hendriks last night. Anyone can give up a home run; it wasn’t even a particularly poor pitch, a 99-mph four-seam fastball at the top of the strike zone. But in the appearance as a whole, he looked off. His first two sliders bounced well before home plate. He only threw a slider one more time, and it was a cement mixer, light on movement and middle-middle.

Maybe this is making too much out of nothing. Maybe this is just how Hendriks would pitch all the time if he had his druthers. But it stands out to me as excessive given Hendriks’ normal workload. Five games in six days, six games in eight days, three straight days of work: the past week had been one heavy-workload milestone after another.

It would be nice to use your closer every day. They’re the best reliever on the team, after all. But this is what happens when you mindlessly call for the closer time after time: eventually, every team hits a stretch of several save situations in a row. I’m sure La Russa hoped not to use Hendriks last night, and I’m sure that he hoped for a slightly larger lead at various occasions in the last week so he could have given Hendriks the night off. But if you’re using him in every save situation — and that’s basically been the case, minus what would have been a second straight three-days-in-a-row save on May 8 — you’re going to run into these long use streaks.

I don’t manage a major league bullpen. It’s incredibly hard, and much easier to do from the comfort of my own home and in hindsight. But for a team like the White Sox, with an excellent back of the bullpen but limited depth, knowing when to save your bullets is crucial. I don’t think they’ve done that so far this year, and I worry that continued over-use will hurt many of their best relievers as the season wears on.

Ben is a writer at FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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1 year ago

Agree on the overuse of Hendriks, but Graveman wasn’t available last night, per La Russa (White Sox beat writer Scott Merkin tweeted about it). There were some limited options last night after Banks got into trouble, and it was either Hendriks or Lopez for pitchers available who didn’t throw on 5/8.