The Player-Hader’s Ball

It was Warren Spahn, one of the most talented major -league pitchers to ever ply his trade in the city of Milwaukee, who originally coined the baseball wisdom that “hitting is timing, and pitching is upsetting timing.” Over a half-century after Spahn upset timing well enough to bring a championship to Milwaukee, the out-of-contention Brewers added a southpaw whose approach to pitching would make Warren Spahn proud.

Josh Hader graduated from Old Mill High School in Maryland with the class of 2012. Even at that stage of his life, the young Hader placed a premium on deception in his mental approach to pitching. This can be seen in a collegiate recruiting profile that the teenaged Hader filled out during his senior year, and the Internet has preserved to this day:

My name is Joshua Hader and I am a 2012 graduate from Old Mill Senior High school, Maryland. I have been playing since i was three years old. I am a pitcher with many different arm slots when delivering to the plate and with great velocity on the ball, I can handle any type of pressure when the game is on the line… I know that my commitment to hard work and my positive attitude will allow me to further excel in this sport.

As a prep player, Hader utilized a mixture of release points and arm angles to keep hitters on their heels. He wasn’t considered much of a prospect until his spectacular senior year. As a senior, he made 13 appearances in relief plus one start, struck out 125 hitters in just 72.2 innings, and posted an eye-popping 0.39 ERA. Opponents reached base at a .096 clip against Hader. He came out of nowhere, but it was impressive enough to pique the interest of his hometown Baltimore Orioles. They drafted him in the 19th round of that summer’s Amateur Draft.

Sometimes, making the leap to the professional ranks is a difficult transition for a young ballplayer. Hader, on the other hand, started reaping the benefits almost immediately. The left-hander’s reliance on varying arm angles in high school had been born of necessity — Hader’s mid-80s fastball hadn’t been enough to overpower high-school batters on its own. But when the Orioles took over his development, they put him on regular conditioning and throwing regiments. Hader had never even long-tossed in high school, and the results of this new dedication were significant. The one-time soft-tosser started touching 93-94 mph on the radar gun, and his arm stamina made a similarly dramatic leap forward. As a result, the Orioles decided to experiment with stretching out Hader as a starter for the 2013 season.

It was an unorthodox decision, but it couldn’t have worked out better. While Hader’s per-nine ratios took a hit, that was mostly a result of a much larger sample size. His 2.65 ERA, 8.36 K/9 and 4.45 BB/9 numbers at Delmarva of the Sally League were all encouraging, very impressive for a converted reliever. That July, the rebuilding Houston Astros were impressed enough that they acquired Hader and outfielder LJ Hoes in exchange for Bud Norris.

The Astros’ minor-league system is populated with mostly pitchers’ parks, but Lancaster of the California League is an exception. “The Hangar,” Lancaster’s stadium, is a perfect storm for pitching struggles. The park sits over 2,000 feet above sea level, resides in a warm, dry climate during baseball season and regularly features heavy, gusting winds that turn pop flies into souvenirs. To start off the 2014 season, Houston assigned Hader to Lancaster’s starting rotation.

It was amongst these unlikely circumstances that Josh Hader established himself as a bona fide pitching prospect. The unforgiving park effects of The Hangar were rendered null and void by Hader’s deceptive delivery. Improbably, given his surroundings, Hader improved on his 2013 stats. He struck out more than a batter an inning, improved his walk rate by just better than a batter per nine innings, and gave up only nine home runs total — and he did it all surrounded one of the most offensively-tuned environments in professional baseball.

Late in the season, the Astros rewarded him with a call-up to Double-A. Hader’s five post-promotion starts represented his longest run of struggles as a professional. He walked nearly eight batters per nine innings and was lit up to the tune of a 6.30 ERA and 1.60 WHIP. But overall, that small sample was overwhelmed by the larger volume of stellar work he had compiled at Lancaster. Houston’s farm system, circa 2014, was the best in all of baseball — and Hader, perpetually improving himself, was named the franchise’s Minor League Pitcher of the Year. The question coming into 2015 was: could Hader repeat this success in Corpus Christi of the Texas League? Or was the small sample size from late 2014 exposing a pitcher whose command would prevent him from pitching effectively at the higher levels?

Hader’s 2015 numbers put to rest any concerns about him adapting to Double-A ball. He continued striking out batters at a rate of over one an inning and improved his control numbers for the third consecutive year. In May, Hader recorded the final out of a combined, rain-shortened no-hitter:

Outgoing Milwaukee general manager Doug Melvin famously placed a premium on players who successfully navigated the jump to Double-A, and so Hader’s impressive 2015 campaign made him a natural target for the Melvin regime’s final big splash.

The active major-leaguer who Hader most often draws comparisons to is Chicago White Sox ace Chris Sale. Both Sale and Hader are former relievers who successfully navigated the conversion to the starting rotation. Both Sale and Hader are left-handers who feature an unorthodox windup and an uncommon, low-three-quarters release point.

And out of those reminiscent deliveries, both Sale and Hader feature almost the same repetoire of pitches — a heavy, tailing fastball; a breaking ball whose effectiveness is enhanced by the unique release point; and a serviceable changeup as the third option. Perhaps most tellingly, both Sale and Hader have excelled professionally year after year in spite of lacking a true go-to pitch.

Hader has been written up for the Baseball Prospectus Eyewitness Reports on three separate occasions now. The three scouting reports on him — from Ron Shah and Chris Rodriguez in 2014, then the stylishly-named Colin Young earlier this season — illustrate perfectly what an unfinished project Hader is, while also hinting at what a special player he could become if everything goes according to plan.

Both Shah and Rodriguez described his curveball as an “inconsistent offering,” and Young dinged Hader’s changeup — which he unforgivingly graded at a 30 — for “inconsistency and a lack of command.” Shah noted how Hader lost a considerable amount of velocity in the fourth and fifth inning of starts, and all of the scouts in consensus expressed serious concern over Hader’s inability to consistently repeat his release point.

But Shah starts off his summary on Hader by stating that “some of his strengths may also be his weaknesses,” and there is no better example of this than his unorthodox delivery and release point. Hader has ditched the “many different arm slots” of his youth — one of the mechanical adjustments Baltimore made that helped boost his velocity — but he is still a man who pitches to the beat of his own drummer:

Before lifting his leg and committing to the delivery, Hader deliberately throws a major hitch into his rocking motion — a light hip thrust that is almost subtly reminiscent of Duffman. This hitch doesn’t seem like much — but in practice, it serves as one more thing the hitter must keep track of in readying himself to swing. Hitters are used to timing a smooth, fluid motion. It’s a juggling act of concentration, muscle memory, and mechanical skill — Hader’s little pelvic thrust effectively shuffles an extra ball into the hitter’s usual juggling act. If it seems like this shouldn’t really affect professional batters, Hader’s gaudy strikeout numbers suggest otherwise.

Meanwhile, Hader’s delivery effectively hides his grip on the ball — especially to left-handed hitters — up to the last possible point of release. This makes the hitter’s job exponentially harder, and Hader’s inconsistent release point only amplifies this effect. Not only is the hitter incapable of guessing the pitch beforehand, he can’t anticipate the point of release, either. Hader’s delivery might get panned by scouts as a weakness. But, in practice, the inconsistent release point keeps the hitter in a defensive frame of mind and allows Hader to punch out of his weight class, so to speak.

Each Eyewitness Report showed evidence of this in the words they chose. Shah explained that Hader’s fastball “gets on hitters quickly regardless of velocity.” Rodriguez echoed almost this exact sentiment, and Young praised that Hader “gets away with a lot due to deceptive mechanics.” All of this is coded speak for “this guy doesn’t look like he should be, but he is hell on hitters’ timing.” Warren Spahn would beam with pride.

At this point, the team is using Hader as a starter. But both Shah and Rodriguez noted that Hader’s velocity does not hold up well as the game goes on. Additionally, Shah mentioned how Hader’s inconsistent release point can result in command problems and blow-up outings from time to time. For both of these reasons, it has been speculated that Hader should be moved back to the bullpen to optimize his effectiveness at the big-league level.

When the Brewers acquired Will Smith several off-season ago, they hoped that he would live up to his potential as a mid-rotation starting pitcher. But they also knew that if this didn’t happen, his skill set would allow him to make positive contributions in the later innings. Smith never panned out as a starter, but the team is more than pleased with how he has worked out as a bullpen arm.

Josh Hader is an asset of a very similar pedigree. He’s a younger pitcher than Smith, with a much higher ceiling and better odds of sticking as a starter — but in both cases, the worst-case scenario was still a good outcome. Right now, the plan is for Hader to finish developing into a number three or four starter–but if all else fails, he will make an impact out of the bullpen.

The smartest investments come with built-in contingency plans, and Josh Hader is no exception. If all goes according to plan, he will develop into a strikeout-happy mid-rotation starter — his BP Player Card suggests Zack Wheeler as a 96-grade comparison. But even if things don’t work out as planned, Hader should still turn into a player who will contribute to the big club, and soon.

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