Quick, name a better combo than the Milwaukee Brewers and elite, late-game pitching. Don’t worry, I can wait.
That’s a hard challenge to complete seeing as the back end of the Brewer bullpen has been hard to overcome over the past few years. And one of the staples of that unit ever since his debut in 2017 has been flame throwing closer, Josh Hader.
Hader has arguably set the standard for National League relief pitchers lately, having not only been named an NL All-Star in three of the last four years, but winning the Trevor Hoffman NL Reliever of the Year in each of those seasons as well, including an unsurprising win this season.
The long, lanky southpaw has put up good to great numbers in every season since his debut, only having a season ERA over 3.00 once, putting up at least a 14.7 strikeouts per nine in every season but one, never allowing a WHIP over 1.000, and never allowing batters to hit higher than .155 over a single season.
While Hader came into the league, he relied primarily on his devastating fastball. which he threw 79.9% of the time in 2017 per Statcast. Since then, however, he has worked on his secondary pitches as well as his overall pitch mix to sometimes varying results.
In 2021, Josh Hader reached a new level for the Brewers. Is it possible that he has found his ideal pitch mix?
Hader’s bread and butter is still his fastball, that’s no secret. But in recent years, he has dropped his usage as he has refined a couple of his secondary pitches, first in favor of his slider, then his changeup.
2020 was the first year that Hader really elevated his slider usage, up to 32.3% after never using it more than 20.6% of the time in a season prior (2018). He also dropped his fastball usage to 67.7% that season, the first time it had ever fallen below 77.3% in a season (also 2018).
That work in progress resulted in one of the rougher seasons by Hader’s standards. He had his highest ERA in a season (3.79) as well as his highest walk rate (12.8%), though it’s worth noting he still managed to lead the NL in saves that season with 13.
The slider showed promise, though, so he continued to use it a good amount in 2021 while re-introducing his changeup, a pitch he hadn’t really used since 2017. He sprinkled it in at a 6.7% usage rate while dropping the usage of both his fastball (65.5%) and slider (27.8%) just a tad.
One could argue that this resulted in Hader’s finest season yet. His 1.23 ERA last year was the lowest of his career, as was his 1.69 FIP. He also set career highs in bWAR (3.4) and home runs per nine (0.46) while he tied a career high in fWAR (2.6).
Another byproduct of the altered pitch mix is that it may have actually improved the effectiveness of his fastball. While it helps that its average velocity was at the highest mark of his career (96.4 mph), opposing batters hit just .103 and slugged just .171 against the pitch in 2021, the lowest marks in a season for that pitch in his career.
That could result in yet another sweet raise for Hader this offseason. After he and the Brewers avoided arbitration last year by agreeing to a one-year, $6.675MM last offseason, the lefty is projected to earn a cool $10MM for his next arbitration year per MLB Trade Rumors.
He may not be as fireball-centric as he once was, but the numbers say that might actually be a good thing for Josh Hader.