White Sox saving Liam Hendriks for save situations that aren’t there

The White Sox went 2-4 in their six-game road trip to Minneapolis and New York, with three of those losses of the walk-off variety. The good thing getting walked off three times is that your team had a realistic shot at winning those games. The bad thing about getting walked off three times is getting walked off three times.

In all three of those games, Tony La Russa refused to open the ninth inning of a tie game on the road with his closer on the mound. In fact, he moved increasingly further away from doing so over the course of the six games, even though he wasn’t rewarded for his decision the first two times.

May 18: La Russa sticks with Aaron Bummer even though Bummer lost a two-run lead in the eighth inning. He gives up a leadoff single, after which Liam Hendriks enters and can only record two of the three outs needed to get to extra innings.

May 21: Although Hendriks is warm, La Russa sticks with Evan Marshall, whose eighth inning ended with a screaming liner that turned into a lucky double play. Marshall gives up three straight singles to lose the game.

May 23: Bummer works around a leadoff single in the eighth with the help of Yasmani Grandal, who cuts down an attempt to steal third. After throwing 17 pitches in the bottom of the eighth, he faces four batters, or three batters if you don’t count the intentional walk. He fell behind all of them, and only retired one of them, leaving the bases loaded with one out for Hendriks, who walks Aaron Judge on five pitches to end the game.

It’d be one thing if Hendriks had dealt with a regular workload, but he hadn’t pitched since Wednesday, or a day after the first tie situation described above. He’d faced a total of seven batters over the previous nine days. He had the time and space to stretch out if La Russa wanted to.

There’s an open question as to whether Hendriks would have been any more successful, because he hasn’t exactly been lights-out this year. I have a recurring genre of tweet where I note the date next to my continued ambivalence about Hendriks’ abilities.

The label of “any good” is relative, of course. Even in a lesser form he’d be qualified to pitch in crucial situations for most teams, because “28 strikeouts to three walks over 18 innings” pretty much guarantees adequacy.

But closing is essentially a pass/fail job, especially when said closer is the centerpiece of an entire offseason, and there happen to be a couple of odd developments clouding the situation to a surprising extent.


There’s the matter that the standard measuring stick for closers — the quintessential three-out, ninth-inning save situation — hasn’t really applied to Hendriks, even though we’re approaching the end of the second month of his stay. Last year, it only took a week before Alex Colomé encountered a cluster of three ninth-inning saves over the course of five days. Likewise, Colomé pitched three consecutive ninth innings from April 14-16 in 2019, all scoreless.

We’re 45 games into the season, and Hendriks has had precious few normal saves for the White Sox. Of his nine saves, only three of them have been the ninth inning of a game with a lead of three runs or fewer, with only two such opportunities in the month of May. He’s also saved three doubleheader games in the seventh inning, which always feels a little like cheating, and three games where he entered in the eighth and pitched the ninth.

Even if you count his two blown saves where he gave up homers in the ninth inning, that’s still not a whole lot of typical closer action where fans can determine their comfort level in whether Hendriks has got this.


If Hendriks is struggling, it’s not because he’s suddenly aging like a bottle of Perth Pink (“This is not a wine for drinking, this is a wine for laying down and avoiding”). Hendriks racked up a staggering 161 strikeouts against 24 walks over 110 innings during his last two seasons in Oakland. Extrapolate his current totals over the course of the same workload, and you’d get 171 strikeouts and 18 walks. That part of his game seemingly hasn’t slipped.

But there seems to be a difference in how it’s playing in actual game situations. The most glaring example is the home run total (four, after just one last year). There’s also the issue where Hendriks has struggled to get a strikeout when he’s needed one:

  • 2020: 24 appearances, two with zero strikeouts
  • 2021: 19 appearances, five with zero strikeouts

It might be a little unfair to give Hendriks’ single-batter appearance on Sunday the same weight as a full inning elsewhere, but he had already doubled his previous total of K-less games, so I don’t think it’s disingenuous to add the latest game, even if it took a different shape.

Whether it’s four or five, it’s still weird, because the typical markers of struggles aren’t evident. His fastball velocity is actually up a little bit, it has the exact same swing-and-miss percentage (30.1 percent), and Statcast loves just about everything he’s doing.

If you’re looking for signs of fastball slippage, you can find it a few more obscure columns:

  • Putaway pitch percentage: 30.9% in 2020; 17.7% in 2021
  • Extension: 7.0 feet in 2020; 6.7 feet in 2021

They’re not columns I would look at if Hendriks weren’t scuffling a little, or if Hendriks hadn’t mentioned extension himself, so I’m not entirely comfortable identifying those factors and closing the case.

But if I had to guess on this limited sample of evidence, it seems like Hendriks’ fastball is merely an excellent pitch, as opposed to baseball’s most devastating offering. Either that, or hitters are a little bit more attuned to it at the moment that he’s throwing it more than ever, so the results per pitch are diminishing. And it’s probably not great that he’s going several days between appearances at the time he’s trying to figure it all out.

There’s some evidence for this, in that Hendriks’ easiest inning of the season was his nine-pitch, two strikeout save against Minnesota where breaking balls outnumbered fastballs. He’d also pitched unsuccessfully the day before, so he had some knowledge of what hadn’t worked.


LamarJohnson noted in his post on Shop Talk Sunday night that Hendriks’ usage is not wildly outside what the other top teams are doing with their closers. And while Hendriks only has nine saves, he leads the American League with 16 games finished.

I’m guessing the lack of standard save situations is due in large part to a random distribution of scores gone awry, but it’s also possible that the White Sox offense’s imbalance against righties and lefties might generate a lot of big leads and narrow deficits, especially if other relievers are already leaking narrow leads earlier in the game.

If I were Tony La Russa — and I don’t wish that, not for a second — I might not wait for that cluster of normal save situations to arrive, because it’s a great way to make the highest-paid offseason addition completely irrelevant. That doesn’t mean to call on Hendriks in the eighth inning with the White Sox up five, but I’d probably use him more in tie games, especially ninth innings on the road. Sure, you’d ideally want his strikeout stuff fresh for a 10th inning with a runner on second, but the three walk-offs show that the 10th inning is purely theoretical until it actually arrives. The White Sox are 1-4 in games tied at seven innings, and also in games tied after eight.

When Hendriks isn’t used in games he could actually sway because they’re not perfectly tailored for his job description, his impact remains more on the theoretical side as well. The whole reason the White Sox signed him is because he wasn’t a typical closer. The lack of typical situations shouldn’t be what sidelines him.

(Photo by Quinn Harris / USA TODAY Sports)

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Jim Margalus
Jim Margalus

Writing about the White Sox for a 16th season, first here, then at South Side Sox, and now here again. Let’s talk curling.

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Well put as always, and thanks for the shout-out!


i just keep hoping that the sox will understand the investment they made when they put all of their offseason eggs in the elite reliever basket.

they’re obviously not the right organization to pioneer this, but they need to be looking for more opportunities to deploy hendriks. i’d say tie and 1-run games where the top or middle of the order is coming to the plate should always warrant a discussion of whether to bring him in. who cares if it’s the 6th inning? games are won and lost there, too. as jim points out, what good is a closer if you narrowly define his use and those use cases don’t come up?

hendriks is durable and wants to pitch a lot of innings. why is he on pace for 66ip? if the sox don’t start planning around getting him in games, then this questionable capital allocation will no longer be questionable. it will be stupid.


Yes to all of that!
Part of what was so frustrating on Friday was that it seemed unlikely that Hendriks would be needed on Saturday – Cole versus Cease did not scream “need your closer especially fresh.” So, it just seemed like TLR was saving him for Sunday, but he had already had a really light week and at some point you gotta just throw the guy some innings.


Good point about Cole v Cease re: Hendriks.


I don’t think Tony was saving him for anything. Tony is working under the old-school reasoning of not bringing your closer into a non-save situation. Remember several years ago when Buck Showalter never used Zach Britton in a wild card game that went 14 or 15 innings because there was never a save situation. Tony operates with that same mentality. There is some argument for that in that you would then burn your closer before a save situation materialized. But bringing in Hendricks for the 9th of a tie game under the new extra inning rules means that if he gets thru the 9th, the Sox are likely going to take the lead in the 10th with a runner on 2nd and no one out. And Hendriks is certainly capable of going two innings. Getting Tony the old curmudgeon to change his old-school way of thinking is not going to be easy.


Of course, much like the 10th inning there were situations with runners on 2nd in both 9th innings, but Tony waited until he had the bases loaded on Sunday to bring Liam in.

I hear you’re point, but the distinction between saving him for another game or saving him for the 10th or saving him for a save opportunity just seems like splitting hairs. If you don’t use your closer when the game is close, and you can be reasonably certain that the next game won’t be close, then what you may end up needing to do is use your closer in a non-save situation just so that he can get his work in. So why not use him in a close game?

And especially on Friday, there were other choices in the pen. It wasn’t just about not using Liam.

Sticking with a ground ball pitcher with a runner on 2nd in a tie game in the bottom of the 9th was basically like giving up. So even if you were OK with Marshall being the guy up to that point, there really was no reason to stick with him to the bloody end.

Last edited 1 year ago by soxygen

I’m not taking Tony’s side, I’m just pointing out that he doesn’t believe in bringing his closer in a tie game. I don’t know why, but that was very common back when Tony was still managing.


Nice piece, Jim! Looking through fan graphs I saw something that jumped out at me: Hendriks is first in the AL in “gmLI” – the leverage index when he enters the game. He is 29th among pitchers in MLB for high leverage innings pitched from the 7th inning on.

I don’t know exactly what this means, but I think it reinforces the point that he is being used strangely – brought in to pitch some incredibly stressful situations, but then at the same time he is logging a lot of work in situations that don’t really require a high leverage guy.

I’m inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt – it’s a really small sample size. On the other hand, I see TLR do strange things late in games every week so I feel like I have enough sample size to say that Tony does not deserve the benefit of the doubt re late game decision making.


Hendriks’ usage is confusing for many reasons. The Sox don’t play in many close games where they are winning. Most of their wins are blowouts. Also, their bullpen performance has been disappointing overall, which adds to our expectations to use high leverage guys in situations you weren’t planning. Two months ago we all probably would have been fine with Bummer, Heuer, or (maybe) Marshall pitching the 9th in a tie game on the road. Now we want or expect Hendriks because the other guys just haven’t been as good as expected.
Hendriks is a guy who will thrive in continuous usage in the high leverage situations many times a week. Those weeks will come and hopefully the off-season strategy of investing in a high priced closer begins to pay off.


TLR has made some bad bullpen decisions AND the bullpen has let them down. What’s the stat now on number of bullpen losses versus last year? Pretty ugly. Their ERA isn’t bad but they’re not clutch.


The Sox have had a few eruptions on offense in the last two weeks, but that 1 through 9 lineup is not that great right now.


I put the strange usage patterns with Hendricks into the same category as some of the pinch-hitting/defensive replacement decisions. Totally unnecessary and perplexing late game decisions by someone who is being too cute by half. Or he’s just mashing buttons. Either way, Tony just keeps painting himself in a corner.

For example, if you bring your defensive replacement into the game in the 7th, they may very well come to bat with the game on the line or RISP. I recall this happening multiple times this year.

I was a little put off by the decision to pinch run for Grandal on Sunday. He is really slow – no question – and Mendick is not. Mendick was the fastest guy who could be brought in to pinch run (Hamilton and Garcia had already been used). Mendick was also the best pinch hitting option available. There was also already one out and the game was tied, meaning we still had a lot of work to do to win the game in the 9th.

Collins isn’t a defense first catcher. He was coming in cold for the 9th inning of a tie game. And all of that was made even more strange by the fact that he brought Bummer back out for the 9th, meaning Bummer pitched to 2 different catchers with the game on the line. It worked out about like you’d expect.

Similarly, Friday night…why bring in Grandal as a pinch hitter with 2 out and a runner on first in the 7th? His power is better from the other side, he does walk a lot, but then he’s really slow…what did that move do to increase our chances of winning? It seemed to me that the most likely outcomes of that move were Grandal striking out and Grandal grounding out. Sure enough, he struck out and looked truly awful doing it. All of which made it even stranger when he decided that everything was going to rest on Marshall’s shoulders. Like, wait a sec, is the manager just mashing buttons? Because bringing in a pinch hitter with 2 out and a runner on 1st in the 7th seems like the sort of move that a manager would make if he really wanted to win that game, but then if he really wanted to win that game relying on Evan Marshall was a strange decision.


Last edited 1 year ago by soxygen
Michael Kenny

I found myself thinking I’d rather have Mendick pinch-hit for Leury than pinch-run for Grandal. But then I remembered that Leury pinch-hit for Hamilton (because ???), meaning there was no one else left to play center field. Why in the world did he replace one .550 OPS switch-hitting center fielder with another, and in the 7th inning?


Can’t really fault hitting Leury for Hamilton. People were pounding the table on that pecking order on this site all season


“Too cute by half” were the same words I thought of, at least with respect to the bullpen. There is a lot of trying for the perfect matchups when he could get away putting in the closer. I don’t know if that is a really a reluctance to use Hendriks in more situations or an effort to get guys to step up and know the closer won’t always be there to bail them out. It is a long season after all. Regardless, I expect we will see more Hendriks if only because he will rebel if he isn’t in more games.

Regarding pinch running, I think it would make sense to see Hamilton run more. If he is still an elite base stealer, he seems to pinch run and then stay stationary at 1B more than I would have expected.


would love for someone (fegan?) to ask TLR “why has jose ruiz pitched more innings than your centerpiece free agent reliever acquisition?”

if we’re going to bluntly assess the bullpen usage, innings pitched can do a lot of the heavy lifting this season. ruiz and heuer should not lead your bullpen in innings pitched. evan marshall has only pitched 1.1 innings less than your $50M reliever. what are you thinking?!


Hendriks has pitched the third most innings of relievers (am not counting Kopech who also starts). Last season, Colome pitched fewer innings than Marshall, Cordero, Heuer and Foster. I don’t recall injuries being a factor in that.

So, though maybe Hendriks should appear more, am not sure comparing directly to a guy like Ruiz who needs to eat innings is the best measure.

Last edited 1 year ago by metasox

not sure the relevance of colome, he’s certainly not on the same level as hendriks.

question for you: why should the innings pitched by the bullpen not almost exactly match the pecking order of quality? what would be the reason for pitching lesser pitchers more over any reasonable sample size?


22 of the Sox 46 games have been decided by 4 runs or more. I see no need to throw Hendriks in any of those games. Another 7 have been 2 or 3 run Sox losses. Again, you probably don’t need to waste Hendriks in most of those. So there are about 19 games where you would REALLY want to see Hendriks. And there are about 22 games where you wouldn’t mind seeing Ruiz (in 4 of those blowouts, he pitched more than an inning, too). For a team that plays in a ton of blowouts, I think it makes sense to see low leverage relievers throw more innings than your closer.

(All that being said, TLR still needs to throw Henriks in more high leverage situations. But I can understand why Ruiz has thrown so many innings)


judging which pitchers should have been used based on the final score is the wrong way to do it. the actual pitchers used will have had a big impact on the final margin, so your analysis would need to be based on the leverage opportunities in those games.

for instance, say the sox had a 1-0 lead in the 6th inning of a game. the opposing team loads the bases with nobody out. it’s the 6th inning, so the sox use a lower leverage reliever. that reliever struggles and the opposing team scores 4 runs. now down 3, the sox continue to use low leverage relievers and eventually lose by 5.

your analysis would say hendriks would have been wasted pitching in this game. i’m saying maybe it’s a totally different game if we use our best reliever in the highest leverage opportunity. that’s why the process for determining how to use hendriks should be based on the situation at hand, not the hypothetical situations that may or may not occur later. in other words, are we more or less likely to face as critical an opportunity as the current situation.


Sure, but I wasn’t going to go into the box score of all 46 games we’ve played this year. I was coming up with a rough estimate.

(Additionally, the comparison was Jose Ruiz vs. Hendriks. Jose Ruiz hasn’t given up more than 1 run in any outing this year, so his performance wouldn’t really sway the analysis)



One thing is for sure, TLR is NOT using the Sox major off-season investment the way that he was intended to be (or should be) used.


In his head it’s still 1983 or 1993, maybe 2003.

and he’s going to use his closer pretty much only when he has a lead.

His philosophy needs to be updated

Last edited 1 year ago by TylerDurden

Pretty hilarious to fire Ricky over his bullpen managing and then replace him with this dumpster fire.