With the regular season now over and the entrance to postseason baseball that is the two wild card games now upon us, we get to see four of the best lineups in baseball duel off against some of the best arms in the game. Starting these two games will be two household names, the accomplished veteran Jon Lester and the young flamethrower Luis Severino, along with Kyle Freeland, a 25-year-old whose season could go toe-to-toe results-wise with some of the best arms in the National League. The last starting pitcher announced for these two contests is... well, he isn’t really even a starting pitcher. Or a household name. It’s the 29-year-old Australian native Liam Hendriks, essentially a reliever who owns a 4.13 ERA in 24 innings this year. Sort of a change of pace from the three other arms we’ll see.
While not even near the status of the other three starters, Hendriks starting tonight’s game is no surprise at all. The famed movement of the “opener” has made waves through the once concrete ideologies of pitching strategy, as we’ve seen guys start that have never once started in their career, shorter outings from starting pitchers (or relievers technically), and relief innings at an all-time high.
Like many teams, the A’s have taken a following to this bullpen revolution, as they’ve worked with Hendriks out of the opener role for around a month now. An under-the-radar relief stud the past couple of seasons, you’d be surprised to see where he stands among the game’s best the past couple of seasons. Since 2015, 72 pitchers have thrown at least 200 innings in relief. Only 13 of them have put up a better FIP than Hendriks in that time. Only eight have had a better K/BB ratio.
Top 20 relievers by FIP since 2015
But while Hendriks has enjoyed success the past four seasons overall, his 2018 season wasn’t necessarily a flat road. After allowing three runs in his first three innings of the season, he was placed on the disabled list with right groin strain. He returned in late May, continuing to have trouble recording outs, allowing another six earned runs over his next eight innings before getting designated for assignment in late June. After clearing waivers, he was outrighted off the 40-man roster and sent to triple-A Nashville. He pitched there for the next two months, completely dominating the level. Out of 584 pitchers with at least 20 innings in triple-A, Hendriks led the way in FIP, posting an eye-popping 1.75 mark held up by a 41.8 percent strikeout-rate and 4.3 percent walk-rate.
Looking nearly unhittable in his stint against lesser competition, the A’s decided to give him another crack on the 40-man roster, subsequently making him a September call up. He was thrown right into the ring too, as in his first appearance back he’d be making the “opener” start for the A’s— his first major league start since 2014.
Hendriks wound up making 12 appearances (eight starts) in September with plenty good results. His fastball velocity is significantly up, his ground ball-rate has seen a spike since his first couple big league stints this season, and while the strikeouts have remained fairly steady, his walk-rate has been cut in half. All equating up to two earned runs allowed in 13 innings for the month.
Among 201 pitchers with 200 pitches thrown in the month of September, only eight pitchers put up a lower xwOBA.
Top 10 xwOBA against in September
When looking for the source of Hendriks’ improvement, the first thing that stuck out was the jump in his four-seamer’s velocity. He’s throwing the ball harder than he ever has the past couple of seasons and it isn’t even close. Non-coincidentally, he’s relying on it more than at any point in this season.
A couple of weeks ago, Hendriks noted the uptick in the offering, pinning a new workout regimen and some mechanical tweaks as the source of improvement, as told to Matt Gallegos of The San Jose Mercury News.
After spending some time in the video room, Hendriks noticed he was slower on the uptake of his delivery and wasn’t getting as much drive on his pitches as he had done in the past.
Feeling fine physically, Hendriks figured it was a mechanical issue, so he started a new routine. The right-hander mapped out a new throwing regimen, which included playing more long toss, to build up strength in his arm. A couple of weeks into his minor league stint, Hendriks had upped his fastball velocity to about 97 mph.
Whether his outing tonight ends up being successful or unsuccessful, it will be a short yet interesting bullet point in what should be an entertaining game. He hasn’t gone more than two innings in an appearance this year, so that seems like his ceiling in terms of length. On the flip side, he could be a couple of baserunners away from exiting his start in the first inning. But with a laid out plan to put nine innings together with one of the best bullpens in baseball, all Bob Melvin needs is a clean first frame. He’s done just that in his new role and that one inning might be the head start the A’s need to pull this one out.