Brewers’ fans can all remember the feel-good story of Jim Henderson. After toiling in the minor leagues for seven seasons, the big righty finally broke into the bigs in July of 2012 as a 29 year old, and quickly won over fans with his power fastball and propensity for the K. When John Axford struggled in 2013, Henderson took over the closer’s role, and nailed down 28 saves (in 32 chances) with a 2.70 ERA and 75 strikeouts in an even 60 innings. Henderson was the unquestioned closer heading into Spring Training in 2014.
Henderson dealt with a loss of velocity and mixed results in spring training last year, leading to the surprising call for Francisco Rodriguez to nail down the save on Opening Day 2014. Henderson pitched unsuccessfully in a setup capacity for 14 appearances before going on the disabled list in April with “right shoulder inflammation.” He had an unsuccessful minor league rehab stint before being transferred to the 60 day DL in July, effectively ending his season. His 2014 ended up with a 7.15 ERA in 11.1 innings, giving up three home runs and walking four. He was able to strike out 17 batters in that time, at least.
At the “Brewers On Deck” event in January, Henderson sounded as though he believes he will be ready for Opening Day. If Henderson is able to recover his velocity, he could be a valuable setup man in the back end of an uncertain bullpen. What happens if he doesn’t fully recover, however?
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Jim Henderson‘s biggest calling card has always been his fastball. He averaged 95+ mph on his fastball in both 2012 and 2013 and has thrown his fastball close to 75% of the time during his career. His other pitch is a slider, which he throws very sparingly, only 18.3% last season. Henderson’s wSL (runs above average vs. sliders) was -2.5 in 2013 and was -0.9 last season, despite pitching only a handful of innings. Given these stats and his unwillingness to throw the pitch more often, it’s fair to question whether his slider is even a major league quality pitch. Getting back to Henderson’s fastball; at the height of his powers, Henderson averaged 95.2 MPH on his fastball and his wFB was 8.3. When you can dominate hitters like that with your heater, throwing a strong secondary pitch isn’t quite as important for a relief pitcher. However, when Henderson’s velocity dropped last year, his wFB fell to a below league average -1.7 (again, in only 11.1 innings).
Henderson still can get swings and misses (a 14.4% swinging strike rate last year), but he has always struggled with walks, averaging 3.6 per nine innings over his career. He has also given up 11 home runs in only 71.1 innings over the last two seasons, and has a very low 32.5% career ground ball rate. According to FIP (fielding independent pitching, an ERA estimator that looks at things that a pitcher can control like walks, strikeouts, and home runs), Henderson should have been around a 6.00 ERA over the last two seasons, so not even his peripherals can save him.
Jim Henderson had a solid run as the Brewers closer, but and end to his tenure with the Brewers may be drawing near. He’s already 33, and his body is likely closer to breaking down that it is his physical peak. He’s coming off an injury that affected him pretty significantly, and has been passed up by younger players on the depth chart. He doesn’t have a major league quality second pitch, walks too many and gives up too many home runs. Unless Jim Henderson can prove he has regained his dominant fastball, we probably shouldn’t expect to see him in a Brewers uniform for much longer.