The A's closer job isn’t up for grabs. It belongs to Liam Hendriks.
That isn’t a fire take or dismissal of other relievers on a quality staff. There’s simply no position battle or thought of one, and rightfully so.
Hendriks was a 2019 All-Star, after all, a right-hander who can reach 96 mph and freeze foes with a "wicked sly-dah." He converted 25 saves for last year’s 97-win A’s team and was a “savior in that bullpen.”
That’s pitching coach Scott Emerson’s opinion, at least. The phrase was followed by more praise for the 31-year old Australian finally coming into his own over a long and winding professional career.
Emerson’s compliment ended with an unwavering vote of confidence.
“Liam has proven that he can get big outs with the game on the line,” Emerson said. “That’s our guy.”
Hendriks would’ve wanted to earmuff it for that last part.
He doesn’t believe he has a job title at this point, with no interest in hearing otherwise. He certainly doesn’t want to be known as, Liam Hendriks: All-Star closer. Definitely not in spring training.
“Oh God, no. I don’t see myself in that regard,” Hendriks said Wednesday. “I’ve told people even heading into this year that I don’t want anything given to me. I’m coming into camp trying to make the team. I’m here to prove I belong and prove that I can fill any role they need me to. I have no idea what my role will be next year, and I need that mindset. I don’t want to become complacent. If I come in assuming that I’ll be given something, even a roster spot, that’s when trouble sets in for me. That’s a sign I’m taking things for granted and I don’t want that. Ever.”
That’s Hendriks’ experience talking. You know his story well, the one where a scrappy right-hander with great stuff was designated for assignment five times but never gave up and finally reached the pinnacle of his profession.
Fellow A’s reliever Jake Diekman believes young players should commit Hendrik's experience to memory and lean on it during tough times trying to make it big.
“Any minor leaguer should look at [Liam] as an example,” Diekman said. “You’re going to get brought up and you could easily get sent back down even if it doesn’t seem warranted. He’s proof that you have to trust your ability and stick with it, because at some point it can all click.”
These inspirational, finally-make-it-big baseball stories are often about the convergence of talent and timing. Hendriks was in the midst of a season where he was borderline unhittable while A’s incumbent closer Blake Treinen struggled with injuries and performance. The A’s looked to Hendriks for help, providing save opportunities upon which he capitalized.
He plans to do that again in 2020 for a loaded Athletics squad with high expectations. He plans to earn and convert his chances and be even better than he was a year ago. There’s humility in his words but confidence in his stuff, his demeanor and his ability to persevere.
That last trait is vital and was ultimately learned by doing. Hendriks went through real highs and lows getting to this point, experiences that made him the person and pitcher he is today.
“I spent several years in the minor leagues, a lot more than some and a lot less than others,” Hendriks said. “You sit there and learn and struggle with certain things, but you need perseverance to get through them. There were multiple years where I thought I played well and deserved to move up to the next level and it didn’t happen. It was a humbling experience that taught me to stop worrying about what everyone else does or focus solely on getting called up. Life isn’t always direct or easy or straight forward. You just have to keep on fighting.”