Despite an A’s bullpen that’s been less than impressive this season, a few Oakland relievers have enjoyed strong campaigns. One of them is 30-year-old Australian Liam Hendriks, who’s unexpectedly been Oakland’s top-performing reliever throughout the first half of this season.
Hendriks, who’s previously pitched for the Twins, Royals and Blue Jays, was dealt to Oakland in the 2015 offseason in exchange for starter/reliever Jesse Chavez. After tallying a 3.99 ERA, 1.27 WHIP and 3.04 FIP over 128.2 IP in ’16 and ’17 with the A’s, Hendriks hit the injured list in the first month of last season due to a right groin strain. He didn’t return until June, nearly two months later, and lasted just 20 days before being designated for assignment. The move came just a day after Hendriks had allowed four runs and two homers in one inning against the White Sox, giving him a 7.36 ERA and 2.18 WHIP in 11 IP at the time.
After being DFA’d, the scuffling Hendriks cleared waivers and was sent to Triple-A Nashville, former affiliate of the A’s before they switched over to the Las Vegas Aviators after last year’s conclusion. Hendriks responded by posting strong numbers over 23 games at Triple-A, pitching to a 2.84 ERA, 0.99 WHIP, 1.34 FIP and 15.28 K/9 across 25.1 IP. They were enough to get him back on a big league mound by the end of the season, as Hendriks was called up on September 1st with league-wide roster expansions.
One thing was different when Hendriks was recalled however: his role. Instead of being used as a middle reliever as he’d been in the past, he was now called on to start games. With the Tampa Bay Rays having success using an “opener” last season, the A’s, who had lost several starters due to injuries, decided to try it also. Hendriks was called on for the job, and after giving up two runs in 1.2 innings against Seattle in his first start, didn’t allow a run in his next seven starts.
It appeared that Oakland had found the right role for Hendriks, who finished the 2018 season with a 4.13 ERA, 1.46 WHIP, 4.33 FIP and 8.25 K/9 in 24 innings. While the numbers weren’t all too impressive, they’d been brought down by a rough start to the season, followed by success in a role the A’s planned on using him in this season. However, with his dominance this year and the struggles of other important members of the bullpen, the Athletics are starting to use Hendriks in the late innings instead of the first inning.
Hendriks has been Oakland’s best relief arm through the club’s first 78 games in 2019, going 3-0 with a 1.49 ERA, 1.06 WHIP, 2.46 FIP, 0.21 HR/9, 3.61 BB/9 and 10.63 K/9 in 42.1 innings. Despite issuing an elevated amount of walks, including 3.75 BB/9 last season and 3.23 BB/9 in 2017, Hendriks has kept the base runners to a low amount by allowing minimal hits. The rate of hard contact against him has dropped from 35.2% last season to 32.3%, and Hendriks overall has allowed hard contact 32.2% of the time in his nine-year career.
With the recent struggles of Oakland arms Blake Treinen, Joakim Soria and Lou Trivino (all capable of being dominant), the A’s are starting to rely on Liam Hendriks in the late innings. Instead of handing the ball to Treinen on Saturday against Tampa Bay, Oakland turned to Hendriks to lock down the save for his first of the season and the second of his career.
The Athletics have used an opener just three times this season, with two of the starts made by Hendriks and the other by Soria. While the A’s had planned on using the opener more often this year, their starting rotation has held its own with a 4.02 ERA (10th best in MLB) while throwing the ninth most innings out of all starting staffs.
With the A’s losing Frankie Montas to an 80-game suspension for the use of a PED, Oakland will look to replace him and could see more inconsistency in the rotation with his absence. They may begin to use the opener more if this happens, however may not use Hendriks if he continues to pitch well in a late-inning role. Whichever way they use him, Hendriks has proven valuable in multiple roles this season and has become an important piece of the Oakland bullpen after being designated for assignment by the same club just a season ago.
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