Press "Enter" to skip to content

Oakland’s Closer Goes by His Own Book

Liam Hendriks has read more books this season than he has saved games, though in fairness, he got a late start on the saves. Hendriks became the Oakland Athletics’ closer in late June. He has been an avid reader for much longer, and has read 23 books since he started keeping count this spring, to go with his 17 saves.

“He’s always read a lot of books,” said A’s catcher Chris Herrmann, who roomed with Hendriks in spring training seven years ago when they played for the Minnesota Twins. “I give him a hard time: ‘What are you reading over there, “Lord of the Rings?”’ He loves all the fictional, fairy-tale stuff.”

Hendriks has written his own fairy tale this season, helping Oakland’s push for another improbable wild-card berth. Last June, he was taken off the team’s 40-man roster after compiling a 7.36 earned run average. He excelled upon returning in September, started and lost the wild-card game at Yankee Stadium, and took over as closer this June. He made the All-Star team and through Saturday had the lowest E.R.A. in the American League, 1.31, among pitchers with at least 50 innings.

“The job that Liam’s filled in the back in the bullpen has been nothing short of miraculous,” the Oakland starter Brett Anderson said. “Ever since he came back last year, his stuff’s been phenomenal.”

When Oakland made its wild-card push last season, Blake Treinen and Lou Trivino locked down the late innings. Both have struggled this season, though, with a combined 4.94 E.R.A. through Saturday, and Hendriks, a right-hander from Australia, has been an unlikely savior.

Hendriks, 30, has been claimed off waivers and traded three times each. For his first playoff experience, in 2014, he was not even allowed in the dugout. When the Kansas City Royals told him he could watch their wild-card game from the stands, he drove home to Fort Myers, Fla., instead.

Hendriks used to return to Australia every off-season and play in the winter league there, throwing year-round. Over time he tapered his throwing, until his outright assignment to Class AAA Nashville last summer. Then he started long-tossing, which he said helped build his velocity. He threw all winter long.

“I went to London for my five-year wedding anniversary, went with Marc Rzepczynski,” Hendriks said, mentioning a former Oakland teammate. “We played catch a couple of times out there, at a park near the London Eye. We had people stopping us, like, ‘What’s going on?’ A lot of people were confused as to why we had gloves on. In cricket, they don’t use gloves.”

Hendriks’s fastball averaged about 90 miles as a rookie in 2011. Now he regularly hits 98 m.p.h. and averages about 96, with a wipeout slider. (His nickname for Players’ Weekend was “Slydah,” as it sounds with his accent.) Anderson, a soft-tossing left-hander, does not bother asking how Hendriks does it.

“No, because he would talk for hours and hours,” Anderson said, smiling. “But he pitches a lot different than I do. It’s one of those things you just watch in awe of his stuff and wish you could do some of those things.”

In Oakland’s wild-card game against the Yankees last October, Hendriks walked the leadoff hitter and then allowed a two-run homer to Aaron Judge, sending the Yankees on their way to a 7-2 victory. Hendriks said he had tried too hard to avoid Judge’s hot zone, but now works only to his strengths. He wants minimal intelligence on hitters.

“He’s playing the odds of: ‘My stuff’s my stuff, that’s where I have the most success and I’m going to stick with it,’” A’s catcher Josh Phegley said. “If a guy is good at hitting the inside fastball from the left-hand side, he’s like, ‘Well, I’m going to challenge him there and see if he can hit my fastball.’”

Part of the reason for the velocity spike is mechanical, Hendriks said; he used to pitch as if throwing darts, but has learned to increase his stride with a more aggressive arm swing. Reading in the clubhouse before games — he had “Stormdancer: The Lotus War Book One” in his locker on Friday — helps prepare him for the pressure of closing.

“I like not thinking,” Hendriks said. “So when I’m on the mound, you’ll see me singing or humming along to someone’s walk-up song, which I do a lot. It just gets in my head and it makes me not think about who’s in the box or what they have done to me in the past. It cleans the slate a little bit.”

As a long reliever for much of his career, Hendriks generally avoided scrutiny. As a closer, his failures are costlier and more liable to incite fans. Players describe social media as a hate-filled wasteland after bad games, and one fan’s harassment of both Hendriks and his wife prompted Hendriks to contact Major League Baseball security.

Even so, Hendriks remains active on Instagram and recently posted a video offering fans a forum to correspond with him about their experiences being bullied. He sells Kelly green T-shirts with a “Strike Out Bullying” slogan, donating profits to a charity that runs school programs dedicated to the cause.

“Knowing there’s someone else out there going through something similar is one of the biggest weights you can take off your shoulders,” Hendriks said. “I was bullied in school, and being able to converse with somebody makes such a drastic difference, being able to say: ‘It’s not only me — I can make it through this.’”

Tyler Kepner on BaseballWith Their Dominance Fleeting, the Cubs Search for AnswersAug. 27, 2019The Astros Are Major League Baseball’s Happy PlaceAug. 16, 2019Amid a Great Run, the Mets Become an Earlier Version of ThemselvesAug. 14, 2019


Be First to Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.