Liam Hendriks is an 11-year MLB veteran, is a two-time All-Star, and has won back-to-back MLB Reliever of the Year awards. He led all of baseball in saves in 2021 with 38, and also closed out a 5-2 victory for the American League in the 2021 MLB All-Star Game at Coors Field. Hendriks was at Rapsodo’s booth in the 2022 ABCA Convention Trade Show so we sat down with him and Dillon Saffle, head of Rapsodo’s MLB Player Relations.
Inside Pitch: Why did you reach out to Rapsodo?
I wanted to better understand what my strengths were. The best time for me to do that is in a controlled setting during the off season. I get all the data from Rapsodo, send it to our guys, and we go back and forth and see what was working, what didn't work, what felt good and what didn't.
Liam uses the tech to make sure he’s at or better than what he was at the end of the season. There’s another group that wants to raise the level of their game, particularly with spin rate. We have a lot of hitters who want to know more about what the ball is doing, because they spend so much time hitting in the batting cage, new Diamond app helps with ball flight and outcome. We also get a lot of guys that are stuck in the minor leagues and they’re really trying to find something to get going. They use Rapsodo for trial and error and instant feedback so they can find way to improve what they do.
IP: What advice would you give to coaches on how to use their Rapsodo when it comes to finding a baseline and then going from there?
Players have to be able to listen to listen to everything, but you can only soak up certain amount of things that are going to be pivotal for you to move you forward. I'm not telling everybody to not listen to coaches, right? But not everyone is made in the same mold. The trick for coaches is finding what you need to do differently with every kid.
Say a kid's going out there and for whatever reason, when he throws an 88 or 86 or whatever his velocity is, and 88 seems to be working but 90 seems to not, you can go through it and you can see what the difference is. It's not just velo. There's something else going on. It's not just the velocity that's going to be changing it. You just want it to be different, whether it's below average or above average. As soon as you're average, that's what hitters are used to. That's what everyone's expecting.
It comes down to content. We are working hard on getting the best of the best to provide content on drills they do to build or improve certain data points. We aren’t coaches and we don’t want to tell anyone how to coach, but we should absolutely be providing information on what the data means and how it goes up and down. We’ve started to do that with our certified courses for hitting and pitching in softball and baseball, those are free with our team memberships. We also have a YouTube channel that we are working on building.
IP: Talk about the Rapsodo a little bit more, and the use of it in the offseason and in-season.
I have been throwing with the Rapsodo now for several years, so I can look back where I was comparable the off season prior to where I'm at now. For me it’s about release height. It's not necessarily about spin rate, but it's more about true spin. And it's also about spin axis. So my fastball I'm trying to be six to 12, I'm trying to be straight over the top to get as little movement as possible. And that's something that you can track on your own. You're able to look at it and you're able to see, "Okay, I'm on the side of the ball, which means it's going to run one way." Or if I'm too over the top of the ball, it's going to run the other way.
There are different markets for Rapsodo in addition to how Liam uses the unit––high schools, travel teams, facilities. All of these places have different goals––it might be keeping a business going to make a living, helping with player assessments and development, or simply just winning games. We also have sessions that we can use that really help with things like tryouts, providing data-backed information to coaches and evaluators to help them when they’re making some of these decisions.
IP: Can you walk us through the other pitches that you utilize and what you shoot for in terms of data points on the Rapsodo, what you use, and just go through each one of your pitches?
I throw a four-seam fastball most of the time. I'm mainly looking for release, extension point, release height, and spin axis. I don't really care too much about spin rate because you can't really change it unless you're just going to start cheating using stuff. But that's for another time.
Every off season I work on either a split finger or change up. I haven't thrown one in three years. They did say I threw a change up last year, but that's because I tripped on a fastball to Shohei Ohtani right before he hit a homer. For my slider, I'm just looking for late break. My spin rate on my breaking balls is very low compared to a lot of other people's, but I don’t put too much stock in that, I think I gave up one hit on my curve ball last year. I throw a spike curveball., so it’s a little bit harder than everybody else's, but I have no idea why people don't hit it. No clue. Knock on wood that it continues, but I couldn't tell you.
That's why I don't put too much stock in the spin rate. I know that my biggest thing with the curveball is all I'm looking to make sure is there's no hump. I want it to look like a fastball and just snap off the table. The higher spin guys can add a hump to it because it's going to break three times more than me. I want everything to look pretty much the same until about 55 feet. I can take a lot less break because that's missing a barrel. Even if a pitch breaks a lot, if a hitter can track it and make that adjustment, they will. That's why they're in the big leagues.
IP: Talk a little bit about your off season training.
Picture you're a runner. You've been training all this time, you run your marathon and then you stop for three months, and then you pick it up and try and run again. It sucks. In Australia I played year round, I was consistently throwing, and I’ve realized that for me, taking time off to heal was actually being detrimental because I didn’t feel as good and it took me exponentially longer to get ready for spring training. So now I take about two weeks off from throwing and then I get back out there.
It's nothing crazy to start off with. It's 120 feet three times a week, and then it moves forward. Once I’m on the mound in the offseason, I can track the strike zone, I can track the way the ball comes out, I can check on the data, and I can throw live BP. The more I throw the better I feel, the less I have to take time off, the quicker it takes me to get back. So I always throw. I know plenty of guys, Scherzer, deGrom, they do a lot of the same thing.
Do you have any advice for teaching pitchers to pitch in the top of the zone, specifically fastballs?
The biggest thing for me is to aim for the belt and throw as hard as you possibly can. You don’t miss down very often when you try and throw as hard as you can, it's just the way the body works. You're going to kind of do too much and you're going to release it up, so I’m embracing that. I'm facing a lefty, I get the catcher set up at the belt every single pitch. If I throw it down ever, it's a mistake. When I’m right and I miss, it tends to be running and sailing away to a place where very few lefties can actually get on top of.
IP: In a game setting, when you find yourself throwing it down, you find yourself making mistakes, what are you doing mentally or changing in your pitch routine to change that?
Other than panicking? No, if I'm throwing consistently down, it means that I'm either not getting all the way out there, or it means that I'm getting too far out there, which happens all the time as well. So if I'm down, I shorten my stride. That way my arm comes through the zone a little later, which means that I’m generally going to be a little higher with location.
IP: How do you see technology moving forward? I know there's a lot of traditionalists, and there's a lot of people that lean heavily on tech. How do you find that happy medium?
I love tech and the fact that it can show you your deformities better and quicker. So it used to be you'd throw and all of a sudden it's like, "Ah, it just doesn't feel right." And you'd have to kind of get the feedback from either the hitter or you'd have to wait for something to really click with you to be able to notice what was wrong. Now you can track it. "Okay. My arm angle's slightly lower. My arm angle's slightly higher." Tech helps people to be able to make those adjustments a lot quicker, and that's something that's going to improve the game.
One thing to be careful with is relying too much on tendencies. Listen, most hitters know exactly what I’m going to try to do against them. But I struck out Rowdy Tellez this year and in the parking lot after the game, I run into Marcus Semien, who I played with for years, and Rowdy comes out. He's like, "Man, you threw me a slider? You're like 88% fastballs." So sometimes it works in your favor because they all have all these numbers and you can just snap something off and then make them look silly. But that’s what baseball is, it's a cat and mouse game.
It’s understandable if you’re intimidated by the tech, but there’s always going to be a place for technology in baseball, especially when it comes to understanding your baselines. It’s powerful information for players, parents and coaches. We’ll see kids that think they throw a slider and a curveball in his mind, but in truth it’s pretty much exactly the same pitch, and he’s manipulating his delivery, which can result in injury.
IP: Are you constantly figuring out ways to change? Or are you aiming for consistency?
I don't like to change too many things once I know it’s working. Why would you change something if it's been working the entire time? Why would you try and reinvent the wheel? You could have a great pitch, but if it's inconsistent, you're not able to throw all that time. So you need to work on that consistency. And that's something that I can locate at all times.
The Rapsodo unit has been fantastic for me because I say "Okay, I felt really good on that one. What did the data say? This one, I didn't feel really good. What's different? What can I change? And what can I get to to get a little bit more consistent?" Comparing what I get from that is everything for me. You want everything to be the same, because that way, you know what's going to happen.
Liam makes an important point here when it comes to the time he spends working on his game. Coaches should feel comfortable putting some of the onus on the players, particularly with the Rapsodo unit. It’s not difficult to set up and use, and players can view data through their profiles on the back end just as easily as coaches can. As long as the unit is readily available, players can take charge here!
IP: So consistency is the name of the game for you?
All you're doing, especially as a reliever, is trying to trick yourself into getting ready. Because every day you don't feel good. You hurt every single day. We have this conversation with the bullpen, a lot of the season: “When's the last time you pitched without discomfort?" Looks at the imaginary watch. "Oh, about 2015." And that's normal for us. We go out there every single day and no one ever feels good, because you've just thrown. I threw in 69 games in 2021, but I warmed up in our over 100. That's just what you do. You go out there and you need to be ready for every single day because the relievers, we call ourselves the janitors. We clean up everybody else's mess.
IP: How do you stay mentally strong when you know you’re not going to feel your best all the time? How can coaches help their players in this regard?
I wish somebody told me to embrace my inner weird back in the day. I just wish instead of trying to be that stoic cookie cutter, the same way that everybody else is, I wish somebody told me to embrace my weirdness. I'm odd. I think everybody's kind of already got that gist. But as soon as you embrace it, it's cathartic. You're able accept who you are as a human being. I scream at everybody on the mound, that just helps me do what I need to do. I just wish at some point it would've been "Look, accept the fact that you like to talk a lot. Accept all these things, and this is what's going to make you successful in life."
So let the kids embrace their weird. Let them scream, let them flip their bats, as long as they don't get upset when someone else does the exact same thing. You could bat flip to the moon off me, I don't care. But if I strike you out, I'm going to scream in your face.