CLEVELAND — Josh Hader wasn’t first.
Andrew Miller was the first elite relief arm deployed in multi-inning, non-save, high-leverage situations — at least in the current version of the game. Chris Devenski has carved out a similar role in Houston, too.
But Hader is a trailblazing figure in his own right.
What’s a little different about Hader is that, unlike so many elite relievers, he is not a failed major-league starter. Unlike Miller, for example, he assumed a relief role immediately upon reaching the majors. And unlike, say, a David Price or Chris Sale — that is, other powerful left-handed starting prospects who debuted as relievers — Hader isn’t merely biding his time until a spot opens in the rotation. Hader does not just fill a need in the Brewers’ bullpen. Instead, the club feels he has real value there. And rather than fight against the role or eye a return to starting, Hader has embraced his work.
In the process, the left-hander has quickly become one of the most dynamic and valuable arms in the game, the game’s best reliever to date. He’s a significant reason why the Brewers are in first place in the NL Central.
He ranks 14th in baseball in pitching WAR (1.9) despite having thrown at least 30 fewer innings than anyone above him on the list.
He ranks second in baseball in WPA (3.14), trailing only Justin Verlander, which speaks to the value Hader adds by pitching in higher-leverage situations. The Brewers are 20-0 in games in which he’s pitched.
It takes a lot of strikeouts to grab our collective attention in this high-strikeout environment, but Hader has our attention. So far this season, he is striking out two batters per inning (18.06), or 56.1% of batters faced. The MLB record for strikeouts per nine innings was set by Aroldis Chapman in 2014 (17.67). Only two pitchers have recorded a strikeout rate of 50% or better while also reaching the 50-inning threshold (Chapman in 2014 and Craig Kimbrel in 2012). Hader’s current mark would be the best by that measure, as well.
Not only has Hader’s performance been an outlier, but so has the manner in which he’s been used. He has appeared as early as the fourth inning this season, most often entering in the seventh or eighth inning. He has never entered a game in the ninth inning, however, and 16 of his 20 appearances have been longer than an inning.
Pitching roles are becoming increasingly irrelevant as we have seen in recent postseasons. This season, both the Tampa Bay Rays and Los Angeles Dodgers have begun starting baseball games with traditional relief pitchers like Sergio Romo or Scott Alexander forcing us to add a new label to the baseball lexicon: the “opener.” And just as we saw Romo embrace the “opener” role, perhaps Hader’s willingness to change is more evidence of pitchers becoming less concerned with labels.
What’s a little different about Hader is that he seems not to care about what label he wears. Pitchers can often become attached to their roles — and for good reason: arbitration earnings are tied in part to saves and wins and innings. There is financial incentive to care about labels. On the other hand, though, clubs are valuing bullpen innings more than ever. We saw this in the free market over the last two offseasons, when relievers took home $777 million combined, the most among all positions in 2017-18. Teams are valuing high-leverage innings, not just saves.
When you hear players — particularly young players — dismiss concerns about their precise roles, it often seems if they are speaking from team-issued, cliche-riddled talking points. But when Hader says it, it seems earnest. The 24-year-old seems to have progressed beyond labels.
“My job is to pitch and get guys out rather than starting or reliever,” Hader told FanGraphs this week. “I think whichever way they thought I could be used best, I would be up for.
“I think it’s just really being ready around the fourth inning… whenever that phone rings, it’s about being ready. Just expecting the unexpected. Pitching is the same thing no matter what inning it is; you still have to go in and get outs. It’s just, keep it simple. The way this game is played, you have innings and you have outs.
Brewers manager Craig Counsell believes many traditional labels are losing meaning.
“Players still want to know what is expected of them… Knowing what is expected is important for preparation [and] mental preparation,” Counsell said. “The label is just a label… ‘Label’ is not always the greatest term, is what we are finding. I think we are finding some of these labels used to mean one thing and now they mean something else… We are always going to try to come up with a name for everything everyone does because it’s fun to do. It’s not going to stop. But I think some of the definitions of those traditional terms are changing.”
Yet, this is a sport where the Yankees, with a roster built to bullpen a game, still demonstrated an unwillingness to depart from traditional labels in last year’s AL Wild Card game. So when we see clubs experiment, when we see a young star-level player like Hader embrace a role, it seems like a sign of evolution.
The challenge, and creative opportunity, for a manager is in how to optimize those innings Hader throws in a such a role. Another challenge is determining how many innings he can throw. The danger, when experimenting, is the absence of a road map. It’s easy to be second-guessed. Of his 20 appearances, Hader has entered with the Brewers tied, leading, or trailing by a run 11 times.
“It’s the score, it’s whose available, it’s rest, what did his last outing look like? There is no secret sauce — believe me,” Counsell said of the process to determine Hader’s usage. “It’s stuff that’s all available for everyone to see. It’s situations. Other teams’ strengths and weaknesses… Ultimately, we are trying to find multiple-inning situations for him. That requires rest — which, we’ve been pretty disciplined in making sure he gets that. We are hopefully going to play a 162-game-plus schedule.”
How did the Brewers sell one of the game’s top pitching prospects on becoming a reliever for an indefinite period of time? The Brewers still won’t commit to what his future role may or may not be. Maybe he is in his long-term role.
“They just said, ‘You are going to be in the bullpen,'” Hader said of his call-up. “There was no set role. I was just happy to be up here and help the team get outs. I don’t think there was any suggested role or how I was going to be used. It just kind of happened. With me being a starter I was able to go multiple innings, which has helped me, to now where I am able to go two, three innings.”
And what’s interesting about role-less pitchers in new-age bullpen roles is that they can be flawed and excel. Teams can take advantage of an amateur feeder system that is producing more high-velocity, swing-and-miss, higher-risk arms that might not have the pitch mix or command to succeed in longer outings.
In some ways, Hader is flawed. He essentially throws just two pitches, a fastball and slider, and relies primarily on the former. He is, at times, a one-pitch pitcher, but it’s a heckuva pitch. Consider that he trails only Max Scherzer (99) and Justin Verlander (97) in swings and misses via fastballs (86). Scherzer and Verlander have, of course, accumulated many more innings than the Brewers reliever.
And in a role where he can throw multiple innings but is rarely, if ever, tasked with facing a lineup more than once, a talented but flawed pitcher can excel.
In mid April, Jeff Sullivan looked at how Hader was becoming one of the best, if the not the best, reliever in the game via a dominant fastball, unusual arm slot, and deceptive cross-fire delivery. Hader continues to follow that formula. Hader has continued to dominate. Hader says he is a better pitcher than he was a year ago. He ditched his full windup this year, which he says has played a significant role in his breakout.
“I think that is one of the better things for me,” Hader said. “I have been able to be more consistent in my delivery. It’s helped with my release point and all that stuff. If you have your mechanics working, you are going to have a better feel… The deception helps the arm angle… It’s all in one. For me, it was really tough at a young age to not get rotational. When you start getting rotational in your delivery, that’s worse for you. You really want to stay straight through, and stay north to south instead of east-west. Once I figured that out going from stretch, that was one of the biggest things.”
Hader might be learning how to pitch, how to refine his delivery and command in a relief role not unlike the one embraced by Andrew Miller. Miller explained to this author he doesn’t believe he can only be successful in a relief role, it’s simply where he learned to pitch.
Had Hader been pressed into a starting role, without plus command of a full complement of pitches, where his velocity might have played down, perhaps he wouldn’t have been as effective. But it would also be a mistake to think Hader is not evolving or that he cannot evolve. He says he’s making improvements to his changeup and a second breaking ball.
There has been a lot of talk about Hader’s future role. The Brewers have been quiet about their long-term vision for him. Maybe he will enter the rotation one day. But maybe Hader has found his long-term home as a guy “who gets outs,” as he says — important outs, high-leverage outs and often in multi-inning outings — a pitcher who doesn’t follow a typical routine in a typical role.
Hader said there has not been any discussion between the team and himself about his future role. Perhaps it doesn’t matter. Maybe he’s already in it, or maybe the Brewers will continue to find ways to make sure he is getting the most important outs of a game. Maybe this role will evolve. Hader might be creating something new.