When the White Sox spent most of their money this winter on All-Star reliever Liam Hendriks, many in the fan base were elated. We were elated about the possibility of using, perhaps, the game's best overall reliever in the previous two seasons in a manner that would give the White Sox the best opportunity to win games. Notice how I didn't say "close out games in the ninth inning".
Upon joining the South Siders, Hendriks talked about his desire to be utilized in any situation that would best help the team. He didn't believe he should be limited to just ninth-inning save situations. This is a guy that had the second-most innings pitched in baseball amongst relievers in 2019 and 2020, so he's no stranger to heavy workloads.
The White Sox saw that firsthand in the Wild Card round loss to the A's last season. Hendriks threw 1.2 innings of the A's Game 2 win, and then followed it up by closing out the series the following day. Throughout much of his time in Oakland, he was used in unconventional roles entering games prior to the ninth inning or by taking multiple innings because he was the best man for the job.
Early in the 2021 season, there was some frustration among the fan base (including yours truly) about Hendriks' usage. Seemingly, Tony La Russa was only willing to use Hendriks in the ninth inning with leads to close games and not in other high-leverage spots. His usage is something that has evolved in recent weeks with La Russa showing that he would deploy the fiery Aussie in the eighth inning or for multiple innings depending on the matchups that the opposition presented him. Perhaps he was simply limiting the workload in preparation for this type of usage when the games matter the most? I can't speak to whether or not that's the case, but it doesn't seem out of the realm of possibility.
The White Sox's trade deadline acquisition of all-world closer, Craig Kimbrel, now gives them a two-headed monster at the back end of the bullpen that can close out games. Hendriks talks about wanting to pitch often so he maintains his stuff, however, we have seen instances this season when he wasn't available the White Sox had issues securing the final three outs of a ballgame. That is no longer an issue with Kimbrel's presence in the pen. Whomever La Russa decides to use on a given night, this team will be well equipped to get those pivotal final outs to ensure there are fireworks as the White Sox leave the field. No other team in baseball can match the two late-inning options that are at La Russa's disposal now.
Many people with a more analytical bend tend to believe that an out is an out. There is a widely held belief that outs in the sixth inning are the same as outs 25, 26, 27. While they all count equally, I think it is important to understand that those final three outs are not the same psychologically. There are countless examples of effective relievers being unable to handle those final outs. For all the algorithms and data sequences that front offices like to utilize today (which absolutely are important), there is and will always be a human element with this game. And simply put, not everyone is equipped mentally to handle the ninth inning. The White Sox now have two guys that possess the necessary mindset to handle that role as they have both done it with high levels of success during their careers.
Mix And Match
Perhaps the most important aspect of this move is the fact that the White Sox can now utilize matchups to their advantage in a way they previously weren't able. We all had tremendous concerns a week ago about how this team would be able to navigate late-inning scenarios against the heart of the lineups in Houston, Boston, Tampa Bay, or New York. We now have our answer. If it's a pivotal situation, La Russa can plug in one of his two closers to get the all-important high-leverage outs prior to the ninth while having an ace in the hole ready to secure those final three outs. This luxury cannot be understated enough.
Knowing that the White Sox have a bullpen ace like Hendriks who is willing to jump into any scenario for as many outs as is needed while having an all-time great reliever backing him up allows us to breathe a huge sigh of relief. Particularly, should starters not provide the length that is needed in a given game, the White Sox will be able to dig into the matchups and utilize their bullpen artillery in the most effective manner possible.
Imagine a Game 4 scenario against Houston, where Diamond Dallas Keuchel is on the mound: he gives you the first 15 outs, the Astros have the top of their order coming up in the sixth inning. You can now plug in Liam Hendriks in this spot to attack to the top of the Astros order, having the likes of the (hopefully) resurgent Aaron Bummer and Michael Kopech to back him up with Kimbrel there to close the door. That is a recipe for success this White Sox team didn't have a few short days ago.
Rebuilding A Pen
With one shrewd move, the White Sox look to have rebuilt a pen that has faltered too often this season. Possessing two of the top relief arms in the game positions this team to effectively handle the high-stakes bullpen games that have come to be commonplace in recent Octobers.
I don't know about you, but I feel much more comfortable with how this team will be able to navigate the high-powered offenses of the American League in two months. An area of the team that many believed would be a strength at beginning of the season has taken a different shape, but it may ultimately end up getting to the level we thought it would. And that rebuilt pen may be the very thing this team needed to ride deep into October.