Batting Against Josh Hader Seems Terrible

I can tell you the instant Josh Hader made me sit up and take notice. We’re going back a week and a half, to what was, for me, a lazy Friday night. I was watching the Brewers attempt to close out the Nationals, and the Brewers held a 1-0 lead in the top of the eighth. Hader took the mound, in relief of Jimmy Nelson.

Right away, Hader attacked Trea Turner and struck him out on three pitches. It was impressive, but, ehh, Turner will strike out. The next batter was Wilmer Difo, and Hader struck him out on six pitches. It was also impressive, but, ehh, Wilmer Difo. The third batter was Daniel Murphy. Murphy has developed into a power hitter without sacrificing much at all in the way of his making contact. Murphy remains one of the premier bat-to-ball hitters in either league. With two down and the bases empty, Hader went to work.

First pitch

Second pitch

Third pitch

I get it. In one at-bat, anybody can dominate anybody. J.D. Davis is a third baseman for the Astros, and within the past couple weeks, he’s struck out Khris Davis, Marcus Semien, and Shin-Soo Choo. Baseball’s gonna baseball, and everything. But the at-bat above captures the moment I became a Josh Hader believer. That might even make me late to the party, I don’t know, but it says something when a young pitcher can make Daniel Murphy look like that. You don’t get to be the player Murphy is if you have a habit of taking ugly hacks.

Hader has yet to reach 40 innings in the major leagues. He’s 23 years old, and he’s been working in relief, after being a starter in the minors. We still can’t know all that much about what he’ll eventually become, yet one point is becoming crystal clear. It’s reflected right there in that at-bat against Murphy. Hader seems to possess a special fastball. It’s a fastball he likes to use — to this point, he’s thrown it four-fifths of the time. But despite that frequency, hitters have yet to catch up.

There’s a direct measure, and a proxy measure. Let’s go with the proxy first! Sure, we still have small samples, but let’s look at some plate-discipline data over the past decade. Setting a minimum of 30 innings pitched, here are the best individual pitcher-seasons, in terms of avoiding contact on pitches in the strike zone.

Lowest In-Zone Contact%, 2008 – 2017
Pitcher Year Z-Contact%
Aroldis Chapman 2014 63.2%
Aroldis Chapman 2015 67.1%
Kenley Jansen 2011 67.3%
Aroldis Chapman 2012 67.4%
Craig Kimbrel 2017 69.1%
Josh Hader 2017 69.5%
Carter Capps 2015 70.3%
Craig Kimbrel 2012 70.3%
Ernesto Frieri 2012 70.6%
Koji Uehara 2012 71.7%
Minimum 30 innings thrown.

There’s Hader, hanging out with a number of freaks. The guy right below him would literally jump at home plate in the act of throwing the baseball. It doesn’t get better than being able to get whiffs on would-be strikes, because that ability reduces the need to try to get hitters to chase. As you might imagine, there’s a fairly strong relationship between getting in-zone whiffs and having a superlative heater. So now, why don’t we examine some fastballs thrown by southpaws in 2017? Here are said fastballs, in ascending order of contact rate.

Unhittable Lefty Fastballs
Pitcher Fastball Contact%
Josh Hader Four-seam 62.1%
Justin Wilson Four-seam 66.1%
Andrew Heaney Two-seam 69.5%
Rich Hill Four-seam 69.5%
Sean Doolittle Four-seam 70.9%
Matt Strahm Four-seam 71.1%
Tony Cingrani Four-seam 71.9%
J.A. Happ Four-seam 72.4%
Scott Alexander Two-seam 72.6%
Chris Sale Four-seam 72.9%
SOURCE: Brooks Baseball
Minimum 200 fastballs thrown.

Lest you think Hader is benefiting from a low minimum, he’s thrown a fastball just about 500 times. Roughly four times out of five, when Hader has thrown a pitch, it’s been a fastball. Roughly two times out of five, when opponents have swung at a Hader fastball, they’ve missed. That is a dominant rate. Presumably an unsustainable rate — it’s almost too extreme — but, good is good. Hader has one of those fastballs that’s just a real bitch to square up.

Why? Part of it is that Hader throws hard. He sits comfortably in the mid-90s, and he can get pretty close to 100. His velocity is good, but not necessarily elite. Statcast doesn’t peg him as having a high-spin fastball. Hader’s four-seamer does have a good amount of rise, but it’s nothing extraordinary. I think, to try to complete the understanding, we have to consider what it’s like to look out at Hader, from the box. About a month ago, Ben Lindbergh and I recorded a live podcast with Fernando Perez. I asked him at one point what makes a pitcher deceptive. He identified looking out at a bunch of knees and elbows. A lanky, sling-y delivery, like what Chris Sale has. Hader appears pretty similar, and he also throws slightly across his body, allowing him to stay closed longer. I haven’t had the experience of facing Hader, and, God willing, I never will, but I wouldn’t be surprised at all to learn that he makes it hard to pick up the baseball early. Blend that with 95 and you’ve got what you need to weaponize a fastball.

If there’s a concern, it’s that Hader’s command can waver. And, indeed, his walk rate is higher than he’d probably like, but even in this department, Hader is looking stronger and stronger. Here’s how his strike rate has moved since debuting with Milwaukee:

In Hader’s first month, he threw 60% strikes. In his second month, he threw 60% strikes. In his third month, he threw 68% strikes. I don’t know if it’ll stick, but Hader’s strike rate in the minors only dropped when he moved to Triple-A, which meant moving to Colorado Springs. Colorado Springs presents an extreme environment where it’s challenging to pitch consistently well, and maybe now Hader is beginning to undo that damage. The Brewers are certainly trusting him, as he’s throwing more and more high-leverage innings. And although the Brewers remain something of a playoff long shot in 2017, they’re coming off a road weekend sweep of the Cubs. Hader might be asked to fill more of the void left by an injured Jimmy Nelson. He doesn’t seem to be the least bit fatigued.

In the long run, the Brewers are only so concerned with Josh Hader’s 2017. It’s only his first year in the bigs, and in time they’d presumably like him to start. The good news, for the big picture, is that Hader seems to have a major-league fastball. The good news, for the smaller picture, is exactly the same. That fastball is lethal, and you can count Hader among the reasons the 2017 Brewers refuse to fade away.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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It’s fun to see an article on Hader like this.

He got lots of “Chris Sale-lite” comparisons when he was coming up because his delivery is so weird, he has great velocity, and he looks like he’s made of wire. And he’s got a great slider too, which doesn’t get mentioned much here. And he’s fun to watch too, with his long hair flipping up.

But…that command. Oh dear. What really, really makes him terrifying? He’s beaned one batter every 8 innings. To give you a sense of this, the league leader in hitting batters is Jose Urena, with 14 hit batters in 147 innings…so one every 10.5 innings. Now, in his small sample he could be way worse…he could be Drew Storen or Dellin Betances. But between that and the walk rate, he has stuff to work on.