Think of the top relievers in Major League Baseball today. You’ll probably conjure images of an Aroldis Chapman fireball or an Andrew Miller slider.
Now go check the stats. Which reliever is leading the league in strikeouts with 29? That would be Brewers reliever Josh Hader. Hader might look like the bassist in a Weezer cover band (you should totally come see their show on 4/20, man, it’s gonna be raaad), but he pitches like an All-Star in the making.
Hader is entering his second year at the big league level, both with the Milwaukee Brewers. Across 14 2/3 innings, he’s allowed just two earned runs while striking out a whopping 29 batters. He’s struck out more than 50% of the batters he’s faced, while allowing just four walks.
Don’t think this is just a hot start that will flame out as the season goes on. Last season he appeared in 35 games, pitching to a 2.08 ERA. His strikeout rate was merely mortal at 12.84 K/9. He has the tools he needs to continue dominating hitters well into the dog days of summer.
Speaking of those tools…who does that slider remind you of?
The comparisons don’t end there. Andrew Miller and Hader are both southpaws who began their professional careers as starters. Miller was drafted in the first round by the Detroit Tigers as a top-of-the-line starter; it wasn’t until he wound up in the Boston Red Sox farm system that he became a full-time reliever. Since joining the Brewers Hader had almost exclusively been a starter at Double-A Biloxi and Triple-A Colorado Springs. When the Brewers called Hader up in the middle of last season, Brewers manager Craig Counsel moved him to the bullpen; Hader has never started a game at the major league level.
Miller and Hader both have interesting stories to tell about getting traded. Miller was part of one of the biggest blockbuster deals in recent memory, when the Tigers traded him, Cameron Maybin, and a haul of other prospects to the (then-Florida) Marlins for future Hall-of-Famer Miguel Cabrera. Once he made his name as a shut-down reliever, Miller was again part of a major trade when the Yankees sent him to Cleveland in exchange for outfield prospect Clint Frazier.
Josh Hader was a pitcher in the vaunted Astros system in 2015, where he likely would have remained if not for a strange turn of events in New York. That summer, the Mets and Brewers agreed to a deal to send outfielder Carlos Gomez to Flushing in exchange for Zack Wheeler and utilityman Wilmer Flores. Flores was pulled from a game against the San Diego Padres, and informed of the trade. He broke down in tears; Flores had spent his entire career with the Mets, and was heartbroken about the trade. Suddenly no one wanted to be “that guy” who traded Flores.
Whether by fortune or design, the Mets found a problem in Carlos Gomez’s physical, and the deal was voided. With the trade deadline approaching, the Brewers moved fast to find a new suitor for their outfielder. Enter the Houston Astros, who eventually agreed to take Carlos Gomez and pitcher Mike Fiers in exchange for top prospect Brett Phillips, Domingo Santana, Adrian Houser, and Josh Hader. Hader was promoted to the big league club two years later.
The most important similarity between the two is in their usage. Both Miller and Hader are more like the “firemen” relievers of the 60s and 70s, and less the prototypical closer of modern baseball. Indians manager Terry Francona uses Miller in high-leverage situations, whether those situations arise in the sixth inning or the ninth. Miller has the ability to pitch multiple innings; two of his nine appearances this season have been longer than one inning, and he pitched two full innings five times last season. Using a dominant lefty like Andrew Miller to set up closer Cody Allen has been a recipe for success since Cleveland acquired the southpaw in 2016.
When Brewers’ All-Star closer Corey Knebel went down with a hamstring injury at the beginning of the season, speculation mounted that manager Craig Counsel would tab Hader as the team’s closer. Counsel has opted for a “closer-by-committee” approach in Knebel’s absence. That approach has actually given Hader more of an opportunity to shine. Hader has appeared in nine games; he threw two whole innings in five of those outings.
Knebel will retake the closer’s role upon his return from the DL, but don’t expect Hader’s role to diminish. Teams need bullpen depth to take the pressure off the starting rotation, and to ensure late-inning dominance in the postseason. A southpaw with a 17.80 K/9 with the ability to pitch multiple innings could make the Brewers bullpen one of the best in the division, and should help Josh Hader become a national star.