The ascendance of Josh Hader

On Mon., April 6, 2015, the Milwaukee Brewers were opening the season at Miller Park, against the Colorado Rockies. Meanwhile, in Corpus Christi, Tex., the Houston Astros’ double-A affiliate, the Hooks, were gearing up to play in the coming days, with a roster that boasted promising talent, especially with regards to prospects like power-hitting outfielder George Springer and leather-flashing short stop Carlos Correa. However, in the Hooks’ bullpen was a 21-year-old Josh Hader, a 19th-round pick out of Maryland. The former California League Pitcher of the Year found his way to Houston’s farm system via a trade deal that sent starting pitcher Bud Norris to the Baltimore Orioles, only two years prior.

In 2015, on the thirtieth day of July, after the Brewers had fallen 21.5 games out of first place in the National League Central, animated center fielder Carlos Gomez, who was one year removed from an All-Star appearance, and rotational anchor Mike Fiers were dealt to Houston for Hader, right-handed pitcher Adrian Houser, along with two outfielders, Domingo Santana and Brett Phillips. Gomez had been nearly dealt to the New York Mets less than 24 hours beforehand, but the deal imploded at the last second.

Now, nearly three years later, not only has Hader cemented himself as the best player to materialize from that trade, but his play has alerted MLB pundits, ones who hadn’t had abounding reasons to watch Milwaukee baseball.

So, what has made the relief tosser, who ranks amongst the top five in K/9, FIP, WAR, and innings pitched, arguably baseball’s best bullpen man to emerge from this young season? Control, pitch discipline and experience have synthesized well with the mechanics of Hader, who, like another lefty, in Boston Red Sox pitcher Chris Sale, relies on his downward momentum in order to slide his left arm toward the plate, has worked batters outside more so this year — and it’s paid off.

For instance, inside the batter’s box, opponents have been flummoxed, as their swinging percentage at pitches outside the zone has increased (from 30.5 to 32.1), while their contact percentage has dipped (from 65.3 to 58.8). With two strikes, he throws his slider low and away to lefties, while he peppers his fastball, around both sides of the plate, around the strike zone, but mostly on the inside corner. What’s more is that he has diminished the usage of his changeup, relying on it only one percent of the time, while ramping up his slider percentage, from 11 percent last year to 29 percent this year.

Through May 5, Hader has struck out 61.4 percent of the batters he has faced. Additionally, the bespectacled flamethrower averages over 19 strikeouts per nine innings.

Former All-Star Corey Knebel, the team’s incumbent closer who suffered a serious hamstring injury early last month, was added to the roster of the Biloxi Shuckers (Milwaukee’s Double-A affiliate) earlier this week. Per Todd Rosiak of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Knebel will make up to four appearances before potentially joining the Brewers during the team’s next road trip, May 10 in Colorado.

This return may not be off-putting for Hader, though, for the Brewers, who are 12-0 when the southpaw pitches. A dilemma is nearing, as the pitching rotation — outside of newfound glue-guy Junior Guerra, who is 2-1 with a 0.83 ERA in four starts — has some question marks surrounding it. Chase Anderson’s command has been off, Zach Davies has been placed on the 10-day DL (retroactive to April 30), due to right rotator cuff inflammation; and the struggling Brent Suter was sent to the bullpen, for the returning Wade Miley. Add all this with the impending return of ace Jimmy Nelson, and it’s easy to see how ephemeral the current rotation is.

However, from a managerial perspective, Hader should continue to fortify this quasi-closer role, in which he has four saves in five attempts, or become a set-up man for Knebel, because there is still time for the rotation to find its groove. One thing to remember, however, is that Hader was a starter during most of his time as a minor-leaguer, surpassing 100 innings pitched in four separate seasons. This current reliever stint could’ve been a ploy to ameliorate the confidence of the young star, who struggled mightily in Colorado Springs, prior to being called up last summer.

If the staff gets healthy and no subsequent improvement is made, perhaps the Brewers try to acquire an arm, or get Hader back into his old role, letting him make a spot start or two. Someone like Jeremy Jeffress, who has tallied a few saves so far this season, could be inserted into save situations. There will eventually be an ultimatum from the front office, but, until then, ardent viewers of baseball should continue to praise Hader’s elevated game, because it may not be like anything they’ve seen.


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