Ross Atkins has stated that the Toronto Blue Jays will consider looking outside the organization to add pitching during this off-season. Liam Hendriks is a free-agent closer worthy of consideration.
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When the current off-season began, FanGraphs listed Liam Hendriks as the number one free-agent relief pitcher. Hendriks has been the best closer during the 2019-2020 period. However, history has taught us that a reliever’s performance can vary noticeably from one season to the next. Is Hendriks worth the risk on a mid-term contract?
Hendriks, born in Perth, Australia, made his MLB debut with the Twins in 2011. He has played for many teams: Twins, Blue Jays, Royals, back to the Jays, and the A’s. Hendriks was ineffective in the early part of the 2018 campaign. Oakland designated him for assignment in June; he eventually returned to the A’s in September of the 2018 season. In 2019 and 2020, Hendriks performed so well that he won the American League’s Sporting News Award for the best relief pitcher in 2019 and 2020. Hendriks did not receive a Qualifying Offer from Oakland after the 2020 campaign.
His fourseam fastball generates an extremely high number of swings & misses compared to other pitchers’ fourseamers, has well above average velo, results in somewhat more flyballs compared to other pitchers’ fourseamers and has some added backspin. His slider is a real worm killer that generates an extreme number of groundballs compared to other pitchers’ sliders, generates more whiffs/swing compared to other pitchers’ sliders, is much harder than usual and has primarily 12-6 movement. His curve is thrown extremely hard, generates an extremely high number of swings & misses compared to other pitchers’ curves, has primarily 12-6 movement and has a sharp downward bite.
For more information about Hendriks’s pitches, please refer to Table 1.
The structure of the analysis is as follows:
- A review of various metrics
- An estimate of what a reasonable contract would be for Hendriks
- The arguments for and against signing Hendriks
The highlights from Table 2 are as follows:
2017 and 2018
- In 2017, Hendriks was good but not top-tier
- He was bottom-quartile in ERA, but his FIP and SIERA were 75th and 72nd percentile, respectively
- 2018 was a terrible season for Hendriks
- His K%, ERA, FIP, SIERA and Strike% were 27th percentile or worse
- Hendriks was the best closer during the 2019-2020 period
- Hendriks generated K%, ERA, FIP, and SIERA marks that ranked no worse than 97th percentile among relief pitchers
- A notable negative was his Hard Hit%, which slotted in at the 31st percentile
- In other words, batters swung and missed at a very high rate (Hendriks’s Whiff% was 94th and 92nd percentile), but when hitters connected with his pitches, they hit the ball hard at a high rate
The highlights from Table 3 are as follows:
2017 and 2018
- The 2017 results show that Hendriks was pretty close to the median in terms of BA, xBA, SLG, wOBA, and xwOBA
- Please note that Statcast uses xwOBA interchangeably with xERA
- No doubt Hendriks wants to forget 2018; his best metric was xSLG, which was 27th percentile
- Hendriks was a dominant pitcher during this period
- His BA, SLG, and wOBA marks were 91st, 96th, and 100th percentile, respectively
- Concerning expected metrics, Hendriks generated xBA, xSLG, and xwOBA (xERA) grades of 97th, 96th, and 100th percentile, respectively
The data, FanGraphs and Statcast’s, supports the view that Hendriks was the best closer during the 2019-2020 time frame. Besides, his fWAR during the 2019-2020 period was better than Kirby Yates, who had the second-highest (3.4). However, another area to explore is his pitching splits (home, away, versus right-handed and left-handed batters).
Not all ballparks are created equal: some are pitcher-friendly, and some are hitter-friendly. Thankfully, FanGraphs provides Park Factors, which allows for a comparison of two ballparks. Recently, Hendriks’s home park has been Oakland Stadium. The Park Factor for that ballpark is 97 (runs) and 94 for home runs. The league average is 100. Accordingly, the run-environment at Oakland Stadium is six percent lower than the average ballpark; the home-run environment is twelve percent lower. The run-environment at Rogers Centre was 100 in 2019; the home-run factor was 103. Therefore, if Hendriks were to become a Blue Jay, we should expect him to give up more runs and home runs (all things being equal).
Table 4 summarizes the splits for Hendriks.
- Hendriks’s OPS against was better at home than it was on the road.
- His average OPS for the 2017-2020 period was 0.520 at home and 0.709 away.
- The MLB-average OPS was 0.733
- In 2019, the split was 0.513 (home) and 0.617 (away)
- Concerning handedness, his OPS against left-handed batters was 0.661 and 0.558 versus right-handed batters.
Hendriks does not have extreme splits in terms of home-away or the handedness of the hitter. The OPS against was below the MLB-average no matter the location or what side of the plate the batter stood.
The contract estimate
For a detailed explanation of the factors considered in the contract computation, please refer to Appendix A. It is important to note that a reasonable contract value falls within a range of other valid contract values. There is no precise number for a contract estimate; it is not like going to the grocery store to buy broccoli.
Table 5 shows that a reasonable contract for Hendriks is a three-year, USD 21.6 million deal. This contract value is much lower than other estimates. The projections from FanGraphs and MLB Trade Rumors were three-years, USD 30.0 million. The value generated by Crowdsource (median) was three-years, USD 36.0 million.
Reliever contract risk
There exists a specific risk inherent in offering a contract of mid-length or more to a relief pitcher. Namely, the performance of relievers tends to vary noticeably season-to-season. Table 6 illustrates this point.
I determined the numbers below by selecting the top closers in 2015 and then tracking that group’s performance over the next three seasons. I used the same approach for the top closers of 2016. For a more detailed description of how the numbers were compiled and calculated, please refer to Appendix B.
- For the 2015 group, the average ERA-percentile ranking deteriorated from 81st percentile to 72nd in 2016 and 2017 and 57th in 2018
- The average FIP-percentile ranking showed a similar pattern of decline, with the 54th slot in 2018
- The performance of the 2016 group was similar.
- The ERA-percentile ranking declined from 90th percentile in 2016 and was 62nd in 2019
- The FIP-percentile deterioration was 94th in 2016 and slipped to 69th in 2019
The results of the analysis above are by no means exhaustive. However, the data is consistent with recent signings of free-agent closers (Craig Kimbrel); some clubs would like a do-over. My view is that teams should be cautious when awarding a deal to a closer that is greater in length than two years.
Case Arguments for and against signing Hendriks
- Hendriks has been the best closer during the 2019-2020 period.
- His expected metrics were excellent during the 2019 and 2020 campaigns.
- The profile of Hendriks is ideal for a closer (high K%, low BB%, high Whiff%)
- Jordan Romano is a candidate to be the Blue Jays closer in 2021, but he is recovering from injury, and he may not repeat his very good 2020 season.
- History suggests that it is unusual for a closer to maintain their relative excellence into the near-term future.
- Hendriks emerged as a top closer in 2019, his age-30 season, and repeated that level of performance in the shortened 2020 season.
- Therefore, there is a risk that Hendriks, a now 32-year old late bloomer, may not repeat his 2019-2020 performance over a three-year contract.
- Rogers Centre is less pitcher-friendly than the Oakland Coliseum.
- Hence, one should expect more runs against if Hendriks were to join the Blue Jays (all things being equal)
The Blue Jays should not sign Hendriks on a deal that resembles the current estimates. Unlike an Aroldis Chapman, Hendriks does not have a long track record of excellence. His elite-closer status occurred in his age 30 and 31-seasons. Furthermore, Hendriks would be entering the typical age-related decline phase of his career. History indicates that Hendriks will not meet the performance level inherent in a three-year, USD 30.0 million contract.
The last word
Hendriks has been the best closer over the past two seasons. However, his excellence has been an aberration so far in his ten-season career. The Blue Jays should pursue internal options (for example, Romano) or consider other free agents (Brad Hand) to address the need to find a closer.
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Bob was a St. Louis Cardinals fan until the Blue Jays arrived on the baseball scene, although he still has a soft spot for the Cards. Similar to straddling the Greenwich Meridian, as depicted in the avatar, Bob applies sabermetrics when applicable, but his heart tells him that Lou Brock belongs in the Hall of Fame.