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MVBrewers #6: Jim Henderson

Is this longtime minor leaguer ready to become one of baseball's elite closers?

Brian Kersey

In virtually every minor league clubhouse, you can find at least one guy to compare to 2009 Jim Henderson. He was a late round draft pick, an afterthought on prospect lists. He's bounced around among several organizations. He's been effective at times, but he's also struggled. He's been within a phone call of the big leagues, but it didn't work out. He's been injured. The clock is ticking, and he has to decide: Will he keep plugging away at a major league dream that seems to get further away each day, or will he give it up and move on?

A fair number of these guys give up. The stop putting the strain on their checkbooks and bodies and move on to plan B. Some others struggle to find a team and the decision to retire gets made for them. There probably aren't many guys that drop from AAA (where Henderson pitched for the Cubs in 2007 and 2008) to low A (2009 with the Timber Rattlers) in one offseason and go on to have extended big league careers. In fact, Jim Henderson might be the only one.

You know the story, of course: Henderson had pitched 313 minor league games over parts of ten seasons when he finally got the call to support a sagging Brewers bullpen in 2012, was briefly thrust into the closer role and recorded his first MLB save in just his seventh big league appearance. He wasn't supposed to be the Brewers' closer in 2013, but replaced a struggling John Axford in April and recorded 28 saves in 61 appearances.

Henderson's fastball might be the best on the team, but it has to be. He throws the heater more than 75% of the time, with his only alternate offering being a slider. His lack of secondary pitches is one of the things that kept him in the minors all those years. Yet somehow, he makes it work.

Like any closer, Henderson's struggles are magnified and his ups and downs go way up and down. Admittedly these are arbitrary end points, but consider these splits from 2013:

Start Date End Date Games ERA
April 1 June 9 21 0.87
June 11 July 11 13 4.97
July 14 August 23 14 0.00
August 25 September 27 13 6.39

The Brewers were pretty fortunate to have some wiggle room during Henderson's final swoon: That 13-game span to end the season included four outings where Henderson allowed a run but recorded a save anyway.

Brewer fans probably know as well or better than anyone that the shelf life of an MLB closer isn't very long. In the last few years they've watched the wheels come off of John Axford, Francisco Rodriguez and Derrick Turnbow, to name a few. For now the Brewers seem content to keep riding Henderson, though, for as far as his fastball will carry them.

Best Game

For this particular instance we're expanding "Best Game" to "Best Day." Henderson was called upon to pitch the ninth and protect a 6-5 lead in game one of a doubleheader against the Cubs on July 30 and did so, working around a couple of walks. A few hours later he got the call again, with the Brewers again clinging to a one run lead, and pitched another scoreless inning to record his second save of the day.

Henderson is one of just four Brewers in the last 16 years to pitch in both halves of a doubleheader, and was the first to record two saves in a day since Mike DeJean in 2003.

Here's the final strike of the second save:

Contract Status

Henderson has about a year and a half of MLB service time, so he won't be arbitration-eligible for the first time until the 2016 season (when he'll be 33) and he's due to become a free agent for the first time in 2019 (when he'll be 36).

Previous MVBrewers posts can be seen at the links below:

#1: Carlos Gomez
#2: Jonathan Lucroy
#3: Jean Segura
#4: Kyle Lohse
#5: Norichika Aoki