Column: Chicago White Sox closer Liam Hendriks, who has become untouchable in recent years, may be the final piece of the franchise’s rebuild puzzle

Paul Sullivan, Chicago Tribune

During 2019 All-Star Game Workout Day in Cleveland, I spoke to Oakland Athletics closer Liam Hendriks about Jerome Holtzman, the writer who came up with the save rule.

“I’ve heard that story before,” Hendriks said. “I couldn’t remember the name, but I’ve read into the fact that someone invented the save. Was he a reporter or a broadcaster?”

Holtzman, as many baseball fans remember, was a longtime columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and Tribune, nicknamed “the Dean” by his colleagues. He invented the modern-day save rule in 1969, and though it’s been modified over the years, it’s still his baby.

“Yeah, I remember them saying something like one day he said (about a reliever) ‘He saved the game,’ and it kind of just stuck,” Hendriks said. “They stuck with it, and it turns out it’s still there. Now is he also the one who came up with the blown save? Because the blown save in the sixth inning is one of my biggest pet peeves about statistics.”

I wasn’t sure who came up with the concept of the blown save, and baseball expert Jayson Stark of The Athletic wasn’t around to ask. At the time, Hendriks had just moved into the closer’s role in Oakland after being the A’s primary set-up man, so his beef with the blown save stat was personal.

“I would much prefer them having a statistic for ‘blown hold,’” he continued. “Anything before the ninth inning (should be) a blown hold, and anything in the ninth inning is a blown save, just because I feel those guys who are not closers all of a sudden have like nine blown saves, or whatever it is, and it’s more of a blown hold. It’s just something I’ve picked up on.”

As we discussed the save rule, I mentioned Holtzman not only changed the strategy of the game, but made a lot of relievers richer after closers began getting paid much more once free agency arrived in the 1970 1/4 u2032s.

What would baseball be like without the save?

“I think the only thing that would change if there was no (save rule) statistic would be financial gain,” he said. “Obviously saves get you paid. But especially in this day and age, there’s no egos in it. At least in our bullpen in Oakland, no one cares who gets in in the ninth inning.

“At the end of the day, we just want to win, and the more we win, it doesn’t matter what role we’re in. I’m perfectly amenable to pitching in the sixth, seventh, eighth, ninth inning… no matter what inning they need me for, whether it be a tough situation or favorable match-ups.

“I’m not concerned with (getting) saves or wins or holds or anything like that. I just want to pitch, I want to win, and then I want to do well myself.”

Hendriks, a native of Perth, Australia, has done quite well for himself since we last spoke.

The free agent closer agreed to a record-breaking three-year, $54 million deal with the Chicago White Sox that includes an option for 2024, putting a cherry on general manager Rick Hahn’s offseason and making the Sox the team to beat in the American League Central.

With an average annual value of $18 million per year, it surpasses the three-year, $52 million deal Colorado Rockies handed to former Chicago Cubs closer Wade Davis in 2018, a move that didn’t pan out for the Rockies.

That’s obviously a huge commitment for a reliever who will turn 32 before spring training and has a lifetime ERA of 4.10. But the Sox are banking on Hendriks continuing the dominance he’s shown the last two seasons — a combined 1.79 ERA with 39 saves in 99 appearances with an 0.897 WHIP and 13.1 strikeouts per nine innings.

He’s been nearly untouchable since taking over as A’s closer on June 22, 2019, averaging an astonishing 14.7 strikeouts per nine innings with a 1.98 ERA.

Can he keep it up for four more years? Sox Chairman Jerry Reinsdorf is betting on it, even without knowing when fans will be allowed back inside the park.

If Holtzman was partly responsible for making closers wealthy, Hendriks will now be playing for a manager who changed the way they’re used. Tony La Russa’s bullpen strategy in Oakland and St. Louis helped him win three World Series, and his trajectory to the Hall of Fame was fueled by A’s closer Dennis Eckersley, who like Hendriks was a converted starter who made his mark in relief in his early 30s.

Eckersley’s six-year stretch with the A’s from 1987 — when he turned 32 — to 1992, was one of the greatest of any closer in history: 236 saves, a 2.18 ERA and a 0.844 WHIP, averaging 9.3 strikeouts per 9 innings. Eckersley, who also is in the Hall of Fame, finished 317 games in those six seasons.

“When I started as a manager with the White Sox in ’79, the bullpens were already an important part of championship clubs,” La Russa said during a teleconference last month. “If you look back at the (Goose) Gossages, the (Rollie) Fingers and the Sparky Lyles, it was typical at that point that even though the starters had a very important responsibility to get to the last part of the game, quite often the last outs were the bullpen.

“And then when we got to, especially to Oakland and I’ve said this every time, it wasn’t me, it was (pitching coach) Dave Duncan that said: 'Let’s get Dennis Eckersley into the ninth, I think he’ll roll.’ What that does, if you have a legitimate closer, it helps you set up the rest of the bullpen and it also has an effect on your opponents, knowing that the game has gotten short.

“But what you’ve seen over the years is that as the bullpens have been used more, the deeper the bullpen, the better your chances. And that’s one of the things that stands out about the 2021 White Sox going forward. We have legitimate starters in (Lance) Lynn and Lucas (Giolito) and Dallas (Keuchel), and we’ve got some outstanding young talent, (Dylan) Cease, (Michael) Kopech… it goes on and on.”

And now he has a stacked bullpen to play with to seal the deal.

Hahn whiffed on his last pricey closer, David Robertson, who signed a four-year, $40 million deal after the 2014 season but was dealt back to the New York Yankees after 2 1/4 u00bd so-so years on the South Side.

But if Hendriks can continue his dominance from the past two years, he could be the most important piece of the rebuild puzzle Hahn started four years ago.

Somewhere, the Dean is smiling.