The Next Josh Hader

You probably already have two questions:

  1. Who is Josh Hader?
  2. Why are we trying to find the next Josh Hader if Josh Hader only has 70.2 MLB innings pitched?

And maybe, if neither of these above questions is one you’re asking, you’re thinking “Who is the next Josh Hader?”

All good questions. I’ll shed some light on the first and third question in a bit but for now, I’m going to skip to question number two.

Perhaps “The Next Josh Hader” is not an apt title for this blog post, but “The Next Josh Hader” is a lot more likely to get clicks than “A Pitcher Very Similar to Josh Hader Who, For Some Reason, Is Flying Completely Under the Radar.” So I suppose that would make me one of those hack bloggers that just slaps clickbait-y titles on their work to get clicks when the article really is not all that interesting or related to its title.

I can assure you this is not one of those posts.

“The Next Josh Hader” may be a bit of a misnomer, but it’s not that far off. If it makes you feel any better, we can call the pitcher I’ll be profiling in this piece “The Newest Underrated Elite Reliever.” Better? Good. Now let’s move on to question one.

Josh Hader is currently a relief pitcher for the Milwaukee Brewers. He was born on April 7th, 1994 about 30 minutes outside of Baltimore, Maryland. Hader, a left-hander, was drafted by his hometown Orioles in the 19th round of the 2012 draft and tore up low minors for Baltimore over the season-plus he was with the organization. The then-eighteen-year-old pitched a total of 113.2 innings over three levels with the Orioles in 2012 and 2013 (28.2 innings in relief and 85.0 innings as a starter) and compiled a 2.46 ERA, 1.16 WHIP, 10.1 K/9, and 4.0 BB/9. His 2.49 strikeout-to-walk ratio could have used some work, but for all intents and purposes, Hader was a young lefty with a projectable frame and a live arm (his fastball sat around 88 MPH his senior year in high school). Southpaws who can carve up the lower minors right out of high school do not come around every day and Hader was showing the Orioles that they did well by picking him in the 19th round.

And then, in true Baltimore Orioles fashion, the organization shipped him and L.J. Hoes, an outfielder, to the Houston Astros for Bud Norris in 2013. Given Baltimore’s track record of developing (or, rather, not developing) pitchers, this was probably a blessing in disguise for Hader.

Hader continued his success with the Astros. In 211 innings over three levels (Both Single A levels and Double A) with the organization, he posted a 3.24 ERA, 1.22 WHIP, 9.4 K/9, and 3.9 BB/9. His ERA and WHIP both went up from his time with the Orioles, but his strikeout rate and walk rate remained fairly constant, which is a good sign, especially as he made the leap from Single A to Double A. The Astros were still unsure of whether they viewed Hader as a starter or reliever long-term, so they threw him into both roles and he pitched well in both.

The Astros, like the Orioles, rewarded Hader’s progress with a trade. In 2015, the Astros sent Hader, Brett Phillips, Domingo Santana, and Adrian Houser to the Milwaukee Brewers for Carlos Gomez and Mike Fiers.

Hader did not miss a beat with his new organization. Over 216.2 minor league innings with the Brewers, Hader put up a 3.70 ERA, 1.26 WHIP, 10.9 K/9, and 4.0 BB/9. The fact that Hader’s numbers did not drop precipitously in his minor league time with the Brewers is especially impressive when considering that 121 of his 216.2 innings came at Triple A in the Pacific Coast League, a notoriously hitter-friendly league.

In late 2017, the Brewers finally decided to give Hader a shot in the bigs. He was good in a relief role last season, but he was not as good as he has been this year. Over 35 relief appearances (47.2 innings) with the Brew Crew in 2017, Hader posted a 2.08 ERA, 0.99 WHIP, 12.8 K/9, and 4.2 BB/9. He also boasted a 17.0% swinging strike rate, well above the league average 11.6% for relievers. And after posting a very good season for a 23-year-old reliever in 2017, Hader ascended to a new plane of existence in 2018.

So far this season, Hader leads all relievers in fWAR thanks to his ridiculous pitching line: 1.57 ERA, 0.48 WHIP (seriously), 0.90 FIP (again, seriously), 18.8 K/9, and 2.4 BB/9. He is striking out 60.8% of opposing batters while walking just 7.6%. He also has a 20.5% swinging strike rate that is 9.1% above league average. And to top it all off, his fastball sits at about 95 MPH (tops out at 98) and his slider sits around 82 MPH and has generated the sixth-best whiff rate among all sliders in baseball. He also has a change-up that sits at 87 MPH but he has basically abandoned it this season.

In short, he’s been a beast. And now that I’ve spent over 800 words talking about the Josh Hader of now, let me tell you about the other Josh Hader of now. Here’s a statistical comparison between the actual Josh Hader and the other one this season:

Screen Shot 2018-05-12 at 4.41.44 PM.png

A quick note about the “2P usage” column: Hader throws a slider as his secondary pitch whereas the other guy throws a curve. This just refers to the percentage of the time either reliever throws their secondary pitch.

Ready for the big reveal? The other Hader is a 28-year-old reliever for the Pirates by the name of Richard Rodriguez.

Rodriguez and Hader share a lot of similarities and differences between their two careers. Both pitchers played for the Orioles and Astros before they found MLB success. Rodriguez was signed by the Astros out of the Dominican Republic as an international free agent in 2010, as a 20-year-old. He debuted in the Dominican Summer League that year, going 2-1 with a 2.00 ERA, 1.06 WHIP, 8.0 K/9, and 2.5 BB/9 in 18 innings. He shortly thereafter transitioned into a full-time relief role and made the slow ascent to the majors. It took Rodriguez eight seasons to make the majors but he finally got to the bigs in 2017 after being traded from the Astros to the Orioles for cash considerations. His minor league pitching line when he made his debut: 402 IP, 3.00 ERA, 1.09 WHIP, 9.2 K/9, 2.4 BB/9.

At the time of his MLB debut, Rodriguez was 27 years old. Unlike Hader, Rodriguez faltered in his debut; the righty threw just 5.1 innings and put up a horrid 14.29 ERA, 2.65 WHIP, and a 1.00 K/BB. Not an auspicious start from Rodriguez.

In November of 2017, the Dominican elected to become a minor league free agent and the Pirates decided that they saw something in Rodriguez’s profile or repertoire that could be of use to him. The Bucs signed Rodriguez to a minor league deal during the offseason following 2017 and that was that. As noted in this Fangraphs piece, only 1% of minor league free agents go on to produce at least 0.5 fWAR in the next season, so these signings go relatively unnoticed. Rodriguez was a different story.

In the middle of April, the Pirates bullpen sported a 6.97 ERA, and the team responded by bringing up two minor league pitchers: Kyle Crick and Richard Rodriguez. Rodriguez had thrown five scoreless innings in the minor leagues with nine strikeouts to that point.

His success continued in the majors. So far this season, Rodriguez has thrown 13.1 innings of 1.35 ERA ball with a ridiculous 15.5 K/9, 11.50 K/BB, and 295 ERA+. That means that Rodriguez has been nearly three times better than the average pitcher this season. Not so bad for a minor league free agent, right?

The Pirates look like they are going to fight for a wild card spot this season so we will get to see Rodriguez in some higher leverage situations down the stretch. Based on how he has performed so far, it looks like we might see him setting up for fellow breakout reliever Felipe Vazquez in the near future, especially because the Pirates’ current eighth-inning guy, George Kontos, has not been good this year. There’s also the possibility that we see Rodriguez in an Andrew Miller-type fireman role if he continues to pitch as dominant as he has been so far this season. Regardless of the role we see him in, though, we may just be looking at baseball’s newest elite reliever.

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Editor’s note: All stats are accurate as of publishing on May 13, 2018.

(Image credit: Jeff Roberson/AP via CapitalGazette.com)

 

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