Liam Hendriks, Still Underrated

The White Sox have been so consistently the class of their division this year that it’s easy to lump their individual performances together. The offense? Scintillating. The starters? Carlos Rodón and Dylan Cease have been pleasant surprises that turned the rotation from good to one of the best in baseball. The bullpen? It’s been great, and almost forgettable in its greatness, with a top-10 ERA, a top-five FIP, and piles of strikeouts, grounders, and pop-ups.

You probably know that Liam Hendriks is the ringleader. He was a key offseason addition, coming off of a superb 2020 for Oakland. But you might not have noticed how good his three-year run has been. He has been one of the best handful of relievers in the game — again. He’s done it while throwing a ton of innings — again. Put it all together, and this recent run of excellence gives him a strong claim as one of the best relievers of the 21st century.

One way you could try to contextualize Hendriks’ string of excellence is by looking at three-season stretches by relievers. The king of this metric is, naturally enough, Eric Gagne. From 2002 to ’04, he was a machine, throwing 82.1 innings each year and delivering an aggregate 1.79 ERA, 1.57 FIP, and a whopping 11.7 WAR. That number hardly sounds like a reliever, but most relievers don’t deliver seasons like Gagne’s. He’s head and shoulders above the rest of the list:

Best 3-Season Reliever Stretches
Player Years 3-Season WAR 3-Season ERA 3-Season FIP
Eric Gagne 2002-2004 11.7 1.79 1.57
Joe Nathan 2004-2006 8.7 1.97 2.02
B.J. Ryan 2004-2006 8.6 2.04 2.11
Eric Gagne 2003-2005 8.5 1.77 1.52
Dellin Betances 2014-2016 8.3 1.93 1.97
Eric Gagne 2001-2003 8.2 1.71 1.66
Craig Kimbrel 2011-2013 8.1 1.48 1.43
Kenley Jansen 2015-2017 8.1 1.81 1.59
Aroldis Chapman 2014-2016 8 1.72 1.45
Robb Nen 2000-2002 8 2.28 2.21

Hendriks places a solid 23rd in all three-season totals this century. It’s hard to crack this list, though. For one thing, plenty of relievers double up by having two excellent seasons sandwiched by two okay seasons. Gagne isn’t the only name on there more than once; there are plenty of Kimbrels, Riveras, Chapmans, and the like in the top 25.

There’s no shame in placing where Hendriks does on the list, but that placement sells him unfairly short. Counting statistics just aren’t going to work when including the pandemic-shortened 2020 season. Hendriks was otherworldly — he posted a 1.78 ERA and 1.14 — but he did that over only 25.1 innings. That gave him the highest WAR total of any reliever last year — and the 452nd-best season since 2000.

We can account for that by using placement within a season rather than total WAR. Take Gagne’s impressive ’02–04 span again. In 2002, he was the best reliever in baseball. In 2003, he was the best reliever in baseball. In 2004, he tailed off… all the way to being the third-best reliever in baseball. Add them all up and divide by three, and he gets a three-year score of 1.67. That’s the best mark of the century.

Fine, Hendriks doesn’t match up with peak Gagne, quite possibly the best stretch by a reliever ever. He’s pretty close, though:

Best 3-Season Reliever Stretches (Method 2)
Player Years 3-Season Rank 3-Season ERA 3-Season FIP
Eric Gagne 2002-2004 1.67 1.57 1.67
Liam Hendriks 2019-2021 2.33 2.01 2.33
Dellin Betances 2014-2016 2.67 1.97 2.67
Aroldis Chapman 2014-2016 3.00 1.45 3.00
Craig Kimbrel 2011-2013 3.33 1.43 3.33
Robb Nen 200-2002 3.33 2.21 3.33
Joe Nathan 2004-2006 3.67 2.02 3.67
B.J. Ryan 2004-2006 4.00 2.11 4.00
Jonathan Papelbon 2006-2008 4.00 2.19 4.00
Greg Holland 2012-2014 4.00 1.83 4.00

Despite a “pedestrian” mark this year of fifth, Hendriks is doing something that almost no one else has. Relievers, by their very nature, aren’t consistent. When you throw so few innings, any rough patch could knock you from the top of the heap. Wake up on the wrong side of the bed and allow two home runs in an outing one day? That’s probably it for you. Hendriks allowed six home runs in 2019 and ’20 combined.

That’s not even the worst of it. You could be great — your normal excellent self — only to have someone else put together an unconscious few months and knock you from the top. Devin Williams nearly surpassed Hendriks last year, because relievers do that sometimes. Just as one or two bad outings can disqualify you from being one of the best in the game, any of 50 fireballing relievers could put together an excellent season and deny a steady performer the top spot in the majors.

To finish well as consistently as Hendriks has, you need to be both incredibly talented and a little lucky. In addition, you need to be durable; he has pitched the third-most innings of any reliever in the past three years, behind only Craig Stammen and former teammate Yusmeiro Petit. Hendriks and Giovanny Gallegos are the only two relievers to eclipse 150 innings with an ERA below 3, and the former isn’t particularly close to missing on either mark, with 172.1 innings of 2.09 ERA work to his name.

I don’t have a lot of interesting things to say about how Hendriks does it, because he’s relied on the same formula for a few years at this point. Seventy percent of the time, he throws a fastball that no one can hit. He has a swinging-strike rate of 18.8% on the pitch this year, which means that a fifth of all the fastballs he throws end up with a batter coming up empty. Not a fifth of swings — a fifth of all pitches. He’s throwing that fastball harder than ever, averaging nearly 98 mph, and daring batters to do anything with it.

Otherwise, he mostly throws a slider… that no one can hit either. That pitch checks in with a 31.1% swinging-strike rate, a number that beggars belief. Nearly a third of the time that he throws a slider, batters swing and miss, which is really hard to imagine for a pitch that frequently misses the strike zone. They make contact less than half the time that they offer at it. If it’s not the best slider in baseball (only Jacob deGrom misses more bats with his slider), it’s certainly on the short list.

What can you say about a reliever with one of the best fastballs in the game, one of the best breaking pitches in the game, and a track record of durability and stability? You can say he’s the game’s best reliever at the moment, with apologies to Josh Hader. You can say he’s on a historic run. But mostly, you might just not think about him too much, because the games that he enters mostly end.

That’s the curse of being an excellent reliever. Hendriks’ outings mostly look the same. He enters the game late, either in the last inning or for an occasional multi-inning save. He strikes a pile of opponents out — 41.6% of the batters he’s faced this year, the third-best mark among major league relievers. He walks only 2.9%, also third among major league relievers. (The two pitchers who strike out more opponents than he does walk a ton of hitters, and the two who walk fewer than he does have below-average strikeout rates.)

For those reasons, his games can feel like a blur. He doesn’t allow many baserunners; his 0.77 WHIP is, you guessed it, the best among all relievers. He generates lazy fly balls, and when he doesn’t do that, he strikes hitters out. If you’re going to score on him, you’ll need to hit a home run: 17 of the 23 runs he’s allowed this year have come as a result of homers. No home run, no fun, and given that home runs are rare events, you might watch a week of Hendriks appearances and feel like you were watching the same one on repeat.

For a reliever, that’s high praise. Hendriks is so good that he feels less like an exciting reliever and more like a fact of life — the inevitable end of a game that the White Sox are leading. That’s what happens when you’re one of the best relievers of the 21st century at the peak of your powers.

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

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2 years ago

Kimbrel hasn’t been as good as he can be since getting traded to CHW, but if he gets right, that Kimbrel-Hendriks duo at the backend is better than any other reliever tandem I can think of