Josh Hader Gives the Astros a Fearsome Bullpen

Ed Szczepanski-USA TODAY Sports

The Astros undoubtedly view their 2023 season as a disappointment. They won 90 games, their lowest full-season total since 2016. They won the AL West, but only via tiebreaker, and then lost a tight ALCS to the division rival Rangers. Viewed through the lens of Houston’s recent domination of the American League, even a solid result isn’t enough.

Just one problem: There weren’t a lot of obvious places for the team to improve. Their lineup is full of the guys who have been mashing for them for years. José Abreu might theoretically be a weak link, but he looked better in the playoffs, and it’s not like there are a ton of exciting first basemen available in free agency anyway. Michael Brantley’s retirement lets Yordan Alvarez DH more frequently, and between Jake Meyers and Chas McCormick, the team has outfielders to fill any voids out there.

Still, the Astros wanted to get better, and hats off to them for that. Could they use some pitching? Sure, of course, but their top duo of Justin Verlander and Framber Valdez is already great, and I really like both Hunter Brown and J.P. France as options behind them. If there was a weakness, it was a thin bullpen, but that can be fixed. Like, say, for example:

The Astros clearly place a lot of value on having a huge raftful of lockdown relief arms. Every summer, they seem to go out and trade for new options, and they also seem happy to sign them in the offseason. Rafael Montero and Kendall Graveman came over in a single 2021 trade. The Astros then gave Montero a new contract a year later. Then they traded for Graveman – again! – the next summer. These guys love relievers, is the point I’m trying to make.

The top end of the Astros bullpen was already excellent. Ryan Pressly and Bryan Abreu would both be superlative closers in their own right. But now they’ll end up as Hader’s understudies, creating a fearsome three-headed monster to end games. No team in baseball can match that top trio. When they’re all rested, games might feel like they’re over after six innings.

To my eyes, Hader is the best of the bunch, though our projections have all three within a hair’s breadth of each other. Speaking of those projections, ZiPS thinks Hader is going to be meaningfully worse in the coming years than he has been in the past, but still great:

ZiPS Projection – Josh Hader
2024 4 2 3.09 59 0 55.3 38 19 7 22 78 131 1.1
2025 4 2 3.20 60 0 56.3 40 20 7 22 77 127 1.0
2026 4 2 3.36 60 0 56.3 41 21 7 23 75 121 0.9
2027 4 2 3.46 60 0 54.7 41 21 7 23 71 117 0.8
2028 3 3 3.74 59 0 53.0 42 22 7 23 66 109 0.6

A 3.09 ERA is pretty dang good. The full ZiPS projections aren’t out yet, but Steamer only projects 10 pitchers for a lower ERA in 2024. It’s also more than half a run higher than Hader’s career mark; he’s just been hilariously good for a long time. 2023 was his best season in quite some time; he put up a 1.28 ERA and 2.69 FIP, giving the Padres lockdown relief that they desperately needed (it wasn’t enough). That followed the first poor season of his career – a bizarre 2022 campaign where his ERA was above 5.00, his xFIP was below 3.00, and he was downright unstoppable by the time the playoffs came around.

Hader’s results have always been prone to big swings because of how he gets his outs. His best pitch is a mind-bending fastball that he throws around three-quarters of the time. It’s a complete outlier of a pitch; he releases it like he’s a regular sinker/slider lefty, low three-quarters arm slot and a herky-jerky motion. Then it explodes upwards like an over-the-top four-seamer. That disconnect – low arm slot, vertical movement – leaves batters looking downright foolish consistently.

Our run values can be misleading sometimes, particularly in Hader’s case, because Statcast reclassified his fastball from four-seamer to sinker in 2022 based on his grip. But they paint a useful picture here: Hader has saved 67 runs relative to average by throwing his fastball, 1.4 runs per 100 pitches. Batters wave helplessly at it, or just don’t swing at it because they know they can’t do anything.

Or maybe they’re looking for his equally devastating slider, which starts out like his fastball and then vanishes without a trace. It falls 25 inches more than the fastball on its path home, and he uses it with that in mind, as a hammer that starts in the zone and finishes in the dirt. When batters swing at it, they make contact less than half of the time, which is as ridiculous as it sounds. It’s one of the best sliders in baseball.

If I told you about a guy with a dominant wipeout slider and a rising fastball, then asked you to predict his weaknesses, you’d nail Hader’s hangups: walks and homers. When he struggles with his fastball command, he never really gets in a position to throw his slider, which frequently leads to walks. It also leads to home runs. When Hader’s trailing 2-0, he throws his fastball 86% of the time. It’s 81% at 2-1, 97% at 3-0, and 94% at 3-1. Even in a full count, he goes to the fastball 86% of the time. Hitters know what’s coming, and though they’re still often fooled by that optical illusion fastball, you know what happens when hitters square up high heat.

That describes Hader aesthetically, but honestly, you could skip that and just get to the point: He doesn’t allow a lot of runs because he strikes so many guys out that the rest doesn’t matter. Most likely, that will continue to be the case in Houston. He’s not a one-year pop-up guy who dominated out of nowhere. He’s not so old that he’ll lose it any day. He’s actually added velocity in the past few years as he’s adjusted from multi-inning work to a pure closer role. If you wanted to bet on a single reliever being good for the next three to five years, he’s one of the top handful of choices; in my mind, only Edwin Díaz is clearly better, with Hader and a group of three or four others in his wake.

That performance explains his contract, which is roughly equivalent to Díaz’s own deal (five years, $102 million, with deferrals and opt outs). I thought Hader might opt for a shorter, higher-AAV pact, but I also think that $100 million sounds pretty cool, so I can see where he’s coming from. This is roughly market rate for the very tippy top tier of relievers; I don’t think it’s a surprising contract in either direction.

The Astros paid him that for an obvious reason: to cap their bullpen with an absolute fire breathing monster. But despite his addition, they project as only the seventh-best bullpen in the majors next year. That’s because the cupboard is looking bare behind their top trio. Graveman is out for the season. Montero was lights-out in 2022 and nearly unplayable in 2023, so who knows what they’re getting from him. Houston hasn’t churned out relievers the way that many of the top teams have in recent years; the belly of their bullpen is full of honest-to-god replacement level pitchers. We project only six Astros relievers to rack up positive WAR – 3.3 from the top trio, and 0.6 from Montero, Ronel Blanco, and Bennett Sousa. There are a lot of bad innings in there, even with Hader in the fold.

I’m tempted to say that this is by design. The Astros have focused their spare pitching depth on the rotation. Luis Garcia and Lance McCullers Jr. are both set to return in the second half of the season. The team already has six reasonable starters on the roster – Verlander, Valdez, Brown, France, Cristian Javier, and José Urquidy. Some number of that group will end up injured, but anyone who gets bounced from the rotation can always end up in the bullpen.

There’s always the trade deadline, too. Sure, literal Kendall Graveman won’t be available this time, but there are always Graveman types around. If the soft underside of the bullpen is a true disaster, that makes it easier to upgrade, and you can count on teams that have fallen out of the race to flip relievers like hotcakes in July. It’s a lot harder to go out and get someone like Hader, which makes January an excellent time to do it.

Most important of all, the weak part of the bullpen matters less in the playoffs, and the Astros are undoubtedly building for the postseason. Hitting opponents with a hammer at the end of games is a time-honored playoff tradition, and right now Houston has the best hammer. It’s not quite as simple as looking at the 2023 postseason, but Houston’s relievers weren’t very good then, and that was with Brown doing relief work. If they’d had Josh Hader, things would probably have gone differently.

So there you have it. A consistent playoff juggernaut gave a dominant closer a market-rate contract. There’s nothing particularly wild or exciting about this deal, though I’m curious to see whether Hader relaxes his stance on multi-inning outings (strong dislike) now that he has a Scrooge McDuck pile of money. Whether he does or not, though, this move makes a lot of sense to me. If you expect to play in the playoffs, you might as well set your roster up for success ahead of time.

Ben is a writer at FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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2 months ago

Smells like too much spend for too little return but it isn’t my money.

2 months ago
Reply to  booond

I agree, but I think this is one of those times where it’s actually justified to overspend: when your competitive window is closing.