Rick Hahn signaled that he was pushing all his chips into the middle of the table by adding much-needed bullpen help before the trade deadline. His moves may have just transformed the White Sox bullpen to the best in baseball.
Last Sunday the White Sox were clinging to a two-run lead against the Milwaukee Brewers in the seventh inning. Tony La Russa called upon Micheal Kopech to pitch the seventh inning. After escaping a jam La Russa had him bat in the eighth instead of using a pinch hitter and having other relievers pitch the eighth because he didn’t trust any other members of the bullpen. When Kopech allowed the leadoff man to reach base he put in Liam Hendriks to get the last six outs of the game for a two-inning save. Hendriks delivered striking out three hitters en route to his 24th save of the season.
Hendriks is as durable as they come but how far can you push him? Using him multiple innings is not a sustainable formula come playoff time. The bullpen which was supposed to be the strength heading into the season quickly turned into a roadblock to a deep playoff run.
To address this Rick Hahn got to work adding Ryan Tepera and Craig Kimbrel. The White Sox bullpen now has a reliable bridge to the ninth inning and Tony La Russa has flexibility with the multiple late-inning options. This is a huge luxury to have with the team’s excellent starting pitching.
Liam Hendriks has the second-most saves in the league. Craig Kimbrel has the lowest ERA amongst relief pitchers.
— MLB (@MLB) July 30, 2021
These arms all have high strikeout rates which is a good sign. The fewer times the ball is put in play the better. Jose Ruiz has a 2.97 ERA. Ryan Tepera has a 2.91 ERA. Micheal Kopech has a 1.52 ERA with 12.8 strikeouts per nine innings. Garrett Crochet has a 3.03 ERA with 11.8 strikeouts per nine innings. All of them are viable options from the fifth through the seventh inning. This is not even including Aaron Bummer who has excellent stuff and is showing signs of returning to his dominant 2019 form. With the additions of Tepera and Kimbrel, this could be the best bullpen in baseball. At the very least they have the best 1-2 punch at the back end of the bullpen.
The big question is who will take the ball in the ninth inning?
Liam Hendriks has a 2.58 ERA with 14.1 strikeouts per nine innings. He leads the American League in saves and even recorded the final out in the All-Star game. The White Sox signed him to a lucrative free-agent deal so they have a lot invested into the Australian. The White Sox had lofty expectations for him after he was named best relief pitcher in baseball by MLB Network shortly before he was signed. For the most part, he has delivered. Hendriks was named AL reliever of the month in May on top of being an All-Star. He has converted 25 of his 30 save opportunities but has allowed some untimely home runs late in games.
Usually, these numbers are good enough to warrant him keeping his ninth-inning role. On most teams, it would not even be a question. Unfortunately for him, the newly acquired Craig Kimbrel has the most impressive numbers of anyone on the staff. Kimbrel has a microscopic 0.49 ERA with 64 strikeouts in 36.2 innings pitched. His strikeout rate is 15.7 batters per nine innings to go along with an impressive 0.71 WHIP. The 33 year old’s 23 saves this season are tied for the fourth-most in the MLB and he may have had even more opportunities if not for the Cubs underachieving this season.
Have you heard the news? Craig Kimbrel is our guy.
— Chicago White Sox (@whitesox) July 30, 2021
His resume as a closer is just as impressive. Kimbrel was named to the National League All-Star team this year marking the eighth time he has participated in the Mid-Summer classic. Kimbrel has established himself as one of the best closers of this generation. The image of his staring at in with his right arm dangling forward has tormented hitters for years.
In 12 seasons he has a career ERA of 2.07 and amassed 371 career saves. Kimbrel was named Mariano Rivera AL Reliever of the Year in 2017. He also has World Series experience in high leverage situations. He won the World Series as a member of the Boston Red Sox in 2018.
Based on the numbers and experience then Kimbrel would have the slight edge. But it would be difficult to remove Hendriks from a job he has done so well this season and I’m sure he won’t be thrilled by it. Tony La Russa has a balancing act to do when it comes to handing the ball to one of these men in the ninth inning. It very well could be a joint effort between the two, with each of them receiving opportunities in the ninth inning.
“Heck of a move by the front office,” Tony La Russa said. “I had the opportunity in Boston to be with Craig, not only is he a legendary historic kind of closer but he’s a great teammate, great person. We have a plan for how it’s going to work. But until it gets communicated to him I don’t want to talk about it.”
One thing is for sure if you are trailing to the White Sox after the seventh inning, good luck. This is a sentiment that could not be uttered before the trade deadline.