January 21, 2021
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On Liam Hendriks’ Unique Contract And The Wisdom Of Spending Big On Closers

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ALDS Athletics Astros Baseball

Oakland Athletics pitcher Liam Hendriks reacts after the Athletics defeated the Houston Astros in … [+] Game 3 of a baseball American League Division Series against the Houston Astros in Los Angeles, Wednesday, Oct. 7, 2020. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

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The vast majority of MLB free agents remain unsigned, but there was a slight breakthrough earlier this week when the White Sox signed former Athletics’ closer Liam Hendriks to a unique deal.

Why is it unique? Well, the deal guarantees Hendriks three seasons and $54M, and while that translates to an $18M AAV, it gets there in a fairly circuitous manner. Hendriks will be in Chicago through the 2023 season, and the club then holds a $15M option for 2024 – with a $15M buyout.

Buyouts are usually a fraction of a player’s annual salary, but in this case the two numbers are equal. This gives the player – and the players’ union – the benefit of that $18M AAV as an industry comparable. Why would the club be agreeable to this? Well, if the club elects the buyout instead of extending Hendriks a 2024 contract, they get to spread the $15M over 10 years, a Bobby Bonilla-esque annuity approach.

So kind of a win-win from both parties’ perspectives.

Let’s take a step back, however, and evaluate both Hendriks and the class of players he represents – the major league closer.

Below is a list of team save leaders (two are listed for some clubs to ensure that the top 15 players in saves in both leagues are listed) from 2017, merely three completed seasons ago:

BAL: Brad Brach/Zack Britton

BOS: Craig Kimbrel

NYY: Aroldis Chapman

TB: Alex Colome

TOR: Roberto Osuna

CLE: Cody Allen

CWS: David Robertson

DET: Justin Wilson

KC: Kelvin Herrera

MIN: Brandon Kintzler

HOU: Ken Giles

LAA: Bud Norris

OAK: Santiago Casilla/Blake Treinen

SEA: Edwin Diaz

TEX: Alex Claudio

ATL: Jim Johnson

MIA: A.J. Ramos

NYM: Addison Reed

PHL: Hector Neris

WAS: Sean Doolittle

CIN: Raisel Iglesias

CUB: Wade Davis

MIL: Corey Knebel

PIT: Felipe Vazquez

STL: Seung Hwan Oh

AZ: Fernando Rodney

COL: Greg Holland

LAD: Kenley Jansen

SD: Brad Hand/Brandon Maurer

SF: Sam Dyson

That list cannot give you comfort if you are a Chicago White Sox. Basically, this group has almost completely turned over. Of those who are still closers, only two, Aroldis Chapman and Kenley Jansen remain with the same club today.

David Robertson is perhaps the greatest single cautionary tale on the list. He was traded to the Yankees late in that 2017 season, was solid in a setup role in front of Chapman in 2018, and then signed with the Phillies to be their closer. He was limited to all of 6 2/3 innings over two seasons there due to injury. The Phillies now have a new GM.

So, closers are volatile. We all know that. But Hendriks is a really good one.

Last May, I did a breakdown of 2019 team closers here. I got this one right, projecting Hendriks as the most likely incumbent closer to earn a lucrative free agent deal in the 2020-21 offseason. Here is an excerpt:

“Why I am calling this guy the best? He and the guy below him (Yates) are the only two closers who have excelled at missing bats, minimizing walks and managing contact for multiple years and are still ascendant in their respective careers. Hendriks has also shown an ability to carry a heavy innings load for a short reliever. His slider has broken through to become a second out pitch alongside his fastball, which he threw at an average velocity of 96.8 mph in 2019. He missed considerable time with a groin strain in 2018. If he holds up and dominates, he’ll be worth a sizable free agent contract following the 2020 season.”

Kirby Yates, “the guy below him” got hurt, showing the fine line even elite closers walk. There’s a really good reason that some of the best relievers in terms of peak value – the Rob Dibbles, the Duane Wards – never got their free agent payday. It remains to be seen whether the comparable Josh Hader will get his.

Hendriks’ 2020 performance was somewhat similar to 2019. His K%-BB% spread improved from 37.4%-6.3% in 2019 to 40.2%-3.3% in 2020. His contact management performance backslid a little; his Adjusted Contact Score (a measure of projected production allowed on balls in play, with a league average of 100 and the lower the number the better) shot up from 82 in 2019 to 106 in 2020. On the negative side, he allowed a significantly higher liner percentage in 2020, on the positive side, he muffled grounder authority much better in 2020.

Hendriks’ “Tru” ERA- (my batted ball-based proxy for ERA- and FIP-) of 52 in 2019 was higher than both his 40 ERA- and 42 FIP-, but was still 2nd best in the AL. In 2020, his 55 “Tru” ERA- was comparable to his 2019 mark, and once again his “Tru” ERA- was higher than his 42 ERA- and 26 FIP-. He carries a heavier innings load than most closers, adding to his value.

And Hendriks is dominating while throwing his fastball 70% of the time. The starters who most consistently dominate over time – the deGroms, Verlanders, Scherzers – tend to dominate with their fastball. Each year, I grade out each ERA-qualifying starter’s pitches based on their pitch-specific bat-missing and contact management performance (this year’s review is coming in February). Using the same criteria utilized for the starters, Hendriks’ fastball and slider received “A” grades in 2019. In 2020, the fastball gets an “A”, the slider a “B+”.

So, he’s really good. But three years ago, Hendriks had pitched only a handful of high leverage innings in his major league career despite the fact he was already 29 years old and had toiled parts of seven seasons in the majors.

Now, he’s the recipient of the largest free agent contract ever bestowed on a reliever, supplanting Wade Davis. Davis had an impeccable pedigree when that contract began, and it was a disaster.

I believe the White Sox picked the right reliever to pay, if one had to be paid. That said, the odds of him providing them three high-end, incident-free seasons are long. There’s plenty of potential risk and reward at work here, and it’s likely the White Sox will reap some of both.