No controversy, but Sox can't shake closer conversation

/ by Vinnie Duber
Presented By Nationwide Insurance Agent Jeff Vukovich
Craig Kimbrel

Tony La Russa promised there wouldn't be a closer controversy.

What there is, though, is a closer conversation that won't go away.

The Chicago White Sox have two of the game's finest ninth-inning men in their employ, having inked Liam Hendriks to a big-money free-agent deal during the offseason and traded for Craig Kimbrel in a Crosstown swap at the trade deadline.

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To say things have gone poorly since the trade is not entirely accurate, as both Hendriks and Kimbrel have continued to flash what has made them All Stars and two of the guys no opposing lineup wants to face with the game on the line. But the handful of rough moments have been impossible to miss and difficult to forget, keeping baseball fans' favorite talking point — the perceived quality of their favorite team's bullpen — alive and well on the South Side.

Hendriks had back-to-back breakdowns against the New York Yankees, serving up a couple home runs ahead of Tim Anderson's epic walk-off winner in the Field of Dreams game and then giving up three more runs in the 10th inning the very next game. Kimbrel has had his days to forget, too, giving up homers to his former team and the Yankees and losing a recent game in Toronto on a wild pitch.

Even La Russa made a headline when he beat himself up for yanking Kimbrel from an outing against the Tampa Bay Rays, saying it showed a lack of confidence and disrespect that are certainly not present from a current Hall of Famer to a potential future one.


Amid all of this, some fans think they might have found a solution in the splits. While Hendriks is the White Sox' go-to closer most days and Kimbrel only assigned ninth-inning work when Hendriks is unavailable, a popular suggestion is that flipping the two would yield better results. Indeed, the stats are what the stats are: Hendriks has not given up a run in the eighth inning this season and owns a 4.19 ERA in the ninth, while Kimbrel has a 5.59 ERA in the eighth inning and has not given up a run in the ninth.

Of course, sample sizes have something to do with that, along with other factors. For example, Hendriks' eighth-inning appearances have often been the start of multi-inning save tries, the sort of thing that gets more difficult as the outing moves into its second frame, as evidenced by the 39 pitches he needed to throw to dance out of danger the other night in Toronto.

But those numbers aren't selling the White Sox on a change being necessary.

"The fact of the matter is they're both, obviously, extraordinarily capable of getting outs in high leverage situations. That's why they're both here," White Sox general manager Rick Hahn said Friday. "I don't make as much of what inning the individual is pitching, in terms of what the results have been. I know that had become a bit of a story over the last 10 days or so as it relates to Craig. I don't think there's anything to that whatsoever."

In addition to the general manager's thoughts on the subject, both Hendriks and Kimbrel continue to repeat the lines they uttered when the trade was made at the end of July, that it didn't matter who pitched what inning as long as the outs kept coming.

"They both said the right thing all the time, they can pitch any time," La Russa said. "As long as what they say is what they mean — I don't question that, I know it's true — they want to get us to October and have a real chance to be the last team standing. So whatever it takes, they're ready to do."

As for Kimbrel, some have wondered whether the shift from dominant closer to setup man has negatively affected him in some fashion. Well, he revealed Thursday, after throwing the ninth with Hendriks unavailable and picking up his first save with the White Sox, that a mechanical issue was responsible for any recent stumbles, not the unfamiliar territory of pitching in a different inning.

"I've been working on some stuff the last couple days," Kimbrel said. "I've been getting in a bad habit of getting around the ball and yanking it. At times, if everything's perfect and the spin is great, I can throw a strike. But more times than not, it turns into a yank.


"But we noticed some things, worked on some things the last couple of days, just staying back and getting behind the ball, and it seemed like my ball was spinning like it was supposed to today.

"(A scoreless outing Thursday) had nothing to do with what inning it was. It had everything to do with what I've been working on the last couple of days and executing that. I was able to execute my pitches and got the job done."

If Kimbrel can truly put the bumpy moments of his first month on the South Side behind him and go back to the kind of effectiveness he had on the North Side, where he had a microscopic 0.49 ERA prior to the trade, then the White Sox can dream of the untouchable back end they envisioned when they made the splashy acquisition to boost their World Series chances.

This being baseball, it's unlikely that the conversation around the two All-Star closers will cease. After all, at the back end of the bullpen, any mistake gets magnified, and the calls for a significant shake-up come fast and furious. Couple Kimbrel's mechanical fix with Hendriks' unusually high home-run numbers — which have existed alongside his to-be-expected All-Star performance — and the conversation might only get louder.

At the moment, it seems La Russa has his plan, for Hendriks to be Choice A and Kimbrel to be Choice B. That, of course, doesn't mean there won't be a lot of Kimbrel in similarly important late-game situations, and it doesn't mean Hendriks can't take over earlier than the start of the ninth, if necessary and as he was called on to do in his most recent outing.

The White Sox have two incredible late-inning weapons at their disposal, and no one's doubting that as a huge plus as the team motors toward October. But as for how those two weapons are deployed? That's the challenge for La Russa, something he'll attempt to iron out over the next month. Then it's time to unleash these two on playoff opposition.

"Having both those guys out there, the trick is having them divide the work, so to speak," La Russa said. "And that's tricky."

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