CHICAGO -- There's a chance that when he was named the 2021 American League Reliever of the Year, White Sox right-hander Liam Hendriks pumped his fist and let out a yell in celebration.
That sort of reaction represented Hendriks’ excitable norm during his first season as the closer for the AL Central champions. Hendriks won the award for the second consecutive year (after taking home the honor as a member of the A’s in 2020), making him the first AL reliever to earn it more than once. Milwaukee’s Josh Hader was named the NL Reliever of the Year, giving him three wins in the last four years.
Hendriks, 32, topped the AL with 38 saves and finished second in the Majors behind the Padres’ Mark Melancon (39). Hendriks’ 113 strikeouts were the most in the Majors among qualified relievers, and he posted a 0.73 WHIP and a .174 batting average against. The native of Perth, Australia, walked only seven (one intentionally) and scattered 45 hits.
In addition, Hendriks’ 113 punchouts represented the third-highest total by a reliever in franchise history, and he became the fifth White Sox reliever to record 100-plus strikeouts in a season and the first since Keith Foulke, who fanned 123 in 1999. Hendriks is also the first pitcher since Kenley Jansen (2017) with 100 or more strikeouts and 10 or fewer walks in a season, and he joined Terry Forster (24 in 1974), Goose Gossage (26 in 1975) and Bobby Thigpen (57 in 1990) as the only White Sox relievers to lead the AL in saves.
“Being the first guy in the American League to go back to back is something that I never really anticipated, but it’s definitely welcome as it is,” said Hendriks during a Thursday Zoom. “This one means a lot, just purely based on the fact it’s over the course of a full season where you go through the ups and downs and you battle back.
“It’s nice to have the personal accomplishment. But now we have to work toward the offseason and hopefully put together a good bullpen for the White Sox, and hopefully we get that back with a ring.”
Not only were Hendriks’ overall numbers outstanding -- he posted an 8-3 record and 2.54 ERA -- he was virtually unhittable down the season’s home stretch. After allowing seven runs (six earned) in 1 1/3 innings against the Yankees on Aug. 12 and Aug. 14, when he felt as if he was tipping pitches, Hendriks allowed just one run over his final 19 appearances, with 10 hits and one walk allowed, and 31 strikeouts, in 21 innings. He saved 12 straight during that stretch and finished off the team’s division-clinching victory in Cleveland, not to mention ending the regular season with scoreless streaks of 15 games and 15 2/3 innings.
Leading the AL in saves, topping the 100-K threshold and closing out that clinching game in Cleveland are just a few of the individual highlights Hendriks remembers. He also pointed to the fact that he stranded 90 percent of his inherited runners, leading all relievers.
“That was one of my biggest strong suits this year,” Hendriks said. “I gave up, I think, three out of 30, but those three were all unfortunately kind of ... They shouldn’t have happened, is what I’m saying. I pride myself in thinking that when I come into a game, whoever is on base doesn’t score, because that’s what we do in the bullpen, we help each other out.
“Obviously the walk total was something that I really pride myself on, making sure I don’t give guys free passes to put them on base. There’s a lot of really cool things that happened this year, and the biggest thing for me was just gaining the relationships with the guys on the team. It’s something that is invaluable and I think the personalities in the clubhouse, the more they’re around each other, the better it's going to get.”
Ultimately, the team fell short of its championship goal, but the experience gained will be beneficial for this young group, in Hendriks’ estimation.
“We had the talent on our team to be a world championship team last year. I think we definitely had the talent on paper, on personality, everything like that,” he said. “The only thing we were lacking was experience. That is something that is invaluable.
“If they are able to add some experience, some guys who have been around other than Lance [Lynn] and Dallas [Keuchel] and Craig [Kimbrel] and guys like that ... If they can bring guys in that have been to the playoffs multiple years, that have won championships, that have been through the ins and outs of the heartbreak of losing, or the joy of winning, that's something that can only add to this team's dynamic.”