CLEVELAND — The White Sox are off to a 6-3 start with series victories in all three they’ve played, and they’ve done it without having their closer at his best.
Is anyone worried that Liam Hendriks, the two-time defending relief pitcher of the year, has a 5.40 ERA and has labored through four of his five save opportunities?
Assistant pitching coach Curt Hasler, who spends most of his game time in the Sox’ bullpen, is not.
“I’ll never say I’m worried about Liam, and I’m not now,” Hasler said after the Sox’ game Monday against the Indians that was supposed to open a seven-game road trip against American League Central teams was postponed because of rain, cold and snow. “He’s very much in tune with what is going on, and he’s very smart about where his body position needs to be. It’s still early.”
Because of the abbreviated spring training caused by the lockout, right now is when pitchers ordinarily would be putting the finishing touches on their preparations. Hendriks has been far from precise in terms of locating his four-seam fastball to go with a biting slider and occasional curve.
“I’m just not getting the fastball after [a good slider] into the right location,” Hendriks said Saturday. “That seems to be the issue I’m going through right now.”
Hasler and pitching coach Ethan Katz sat with Hendriks in the coaches’ room last weekend at Guaranteed Rate Field. And it was Hendriks, a pitch-data and video connoisseur who is in tune with his delivery and performance, who more or less ran the meeting.
“The metrics are fine,” Hasler said. “A lot of things point to him being OK. The ball has not been hit as hard as what we maybe think. He’s getting strikeouts. Got some bad counts, pulling the ball he’s not trying to pull. He’s trying to stay behind the ball.”
The discussion was about the height of Hendriks’ release point, his release angle being a shade off from center and other fine points of his delivery.
“‘He is right on track; he’s right where he needs to be,” Hasler said. “He has a real good grasp of things.”
Hendriks blew his first save opportunity on Opening Day in Detroit but has converted four in a row since. In five innings, he has struck out nine and walked one. But he also has allowed 11 hits and needed an unusual 1-5 putout Saturday against the Rays to keep from blowing the save.
Not counting a 1-2-3 ninth inning to preserve a 3-2 victory Friday against the Rays, Hendriks has thrown an average of 26.5 pitches to an average of six batters in his other four one-inning stints.
Katz said Hendriks is overthrowing his slider at times, which isn’t an uncommon temptation for pitchers to fall prey to. Hasler said he sees that often.
“‘He’s human,” Hasler said. “They can all do that at times. Lance Lynn and Michael Kopech will do that. The other day, Bennett Sousa tried to get a little more on his breaking ball. That goes with the ultra-competitive nature of these guys. They’ve got you in a good count and want to put you away and want to make it a little better. We call it ‘overcooking’ it. They know it and get mad at themselves for trying to do too much, but it doesn’t lead down a good path.”
As for doing too much workwise, it’s hard to keep Hendriks down. The postponed game gave him consecutive days off after he wasn’t needed Sunday.
“He loves to pitch,” Hasler said. “He wants to be the guy; he is the guy. He wants to be part of this, to help us get to the promised land where we want to be.”
NOTE: The postponed game will be made up as part of a split-doubleheader starting at 12:10 p.m. July 12. The Sox are staying in rotation with Dallas Keuchel (Tuesday), Jimmy Lambert (Wednesday) and Dylan Cease (Thursday) pitching the final three games of the series.