If you ask the common White Sox fan what the biggest disappointment of 2021 has been so far, you might get a few answers. You might hear about mismanagement by Tony La Russa, leaving too many runners on base, or the injuries to Eloy Jimenez and Luis Robert.
However, there is an elephant in the room that most are overlooking: Liam Hendriks' brutal start to his White Sox tenure. Blown saves, home runs allowed, and a lack of consistency have fans uneasy heading into the ninth inning of tight ballgames. Perhaps his past dominance leads to some shrugging it off, but it's about time we address it in full.
Before we get into that, however, let's go back to the beginning and take a look at the expectations coming in.
A Warm Welcome
When White Sox GM Rick Hahn signed Hendriks to a three-year, $54 million dollar contract in the offseason, he had no shortage of praise for the 32-year-old closer.
“We got an up-close look at how dominant he could be. It’s easy to say we wanted him after watching what he did against us, but the truth is that he’s been on our radar for over a year."
- Rick Hahn on Liam Hendriks
Hahn took it a step further, claiming he had been in contact with the Oakland A's the season prior, trying to get trade talks off the ground. Hendriks was a highly sought-after commodity and it's easy to see why. Not only was he locking down the final innings of games, but he was also doing so in dominant fashion.
Home Runs Allowed
Back To Reality
Unfortunately, that's where the good times end. To be blunt, Liam Hendriks has been underwhelming so far. He currently holds an ERA of 3.86 with five saves in seven opportunities. Hendriks has also experienced trouble with the long ball this season, giving up four home runs in just 11.2 innings pitched. This is especially alarming considering he only allowed one home run in 25.1 innings last season.
While it may be a little harsh considering Hendriks has only made 12 appearances this season, he needs to tighten it up. He is being paid to serve as the White Sox' top high-leverage arm out of the bullpen, but so far his efforts just haven't been consistent enough. However, that doesn't mean he can't turn it around.
Blueprint For Success
While those numbers elicit criticism, the stat sheet doesn't tell the whole story. Before the season began, Hendriks was dealing with a severe case of kidney stones, which caused the team to show caution with him early on. That could potentially be a lingering issue that prevented him from getting off to a hot start. It's also worth noting that Hendriks has had some impressive saves, including a 32-pitch, five-strikeout outing against the Texas Rangers.
While the home runs have been a major downer, four out of his five earned runs have come off the long ball. If Hendriks can avoid giving up homers, he can get back on track quickly. Batters are only hitting .205 against Hendriks this season and his 42.2% strikeout percentage is the highest of his career. His flyball percentage is also at an all-time high, which can explain why he's had a few pitches sail over the wall. If he can focus more on getting the ball on the ground, it could be the recipe for success.
Time To Worry?
To keep it short: No. It's not time to worry about Liam Hendriks... yet. He has proven for the past three seasons that he can be a dependable, dominant, and lockdown closer. Perhaps the early struggles are mental, which is common with even the best players in the game. Perhaps he's toying with his mechanics to up his strikeout numbers. It'll be hard to say whether or not this is a lingering issue until we get to June/July.
Regardless, a nice, long scoreless innings streak would go a long way in soothing the early frustrations of White Sox fans.