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Josh Hader and the Milwaukee Brewers may make us change how we think about pitching

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This September, the Brewers might be giving us a glimpse of what the future of the pitching staff might look like.

Milwaukee Brewers v Cincinnati Reds Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

The Milwaukee Brewers won their 80th game of the season last night, defeating the Pittsburgh Pirates by a score of 3-0 on the road at PNC Park. Brent Suter got the start for Milwaukee, tossing the first five innings before giving way to the bullpen. Four relievers - Jeremy Jeffress, Josh Hader, Anthony Swarzak, and Corey Knebel - combined to finish off the final four innings of the shutout victory.

Of particular note was Hader’s performance: five batter faced, three strikeouts, and one hit allowed that was erased when the plodding Elias Diaz was thrown out trying to stretch a double into a triple. The 23 year old lefty began the year as Milwaukee’s top pitching prospect working as a starter in AAA, but was summoned to the big leagues in June to join the bullpen and has been a revelation. He’s pitched in 31 games, working more than one inning in 14 of them, and has authored a 1.77 ERA across 40.2 innings pitched. He’s struck out 36% of the batters that have faced him, has held opponents to a .147 batting average against, and both a FIP- of 70 and DRA- of 83 support the fact that Hader has been a well above-average performer out of the bullpen for the Brewers.

Hader has been so successful out the ‘pen, in fact, that it may present the organization with a difficult quandary regarding his future:

The way that Hader is finding success leads to some question about whether he’d be as effective as a starter, as well. He’s heavy reliant on his fastball, throwing it a whopping 81.1% of the time (according to Pitch Info data from Fangraphs. That is the third-most among all MLB pitchers that have thrown at least 40 innings. Hader does have a pretty special fastball, but when you’re required to work through a lineup multiple times you need to show more than one pitch. Hader has shown glimpses of promise with his changeup and slider, but still needs to develop consistency with those pitches.

Josh’s command has been spotty in the big leagues as well, and isn’t projected by scouts to improve all that much. He’s issued free passes to 13% of the hitters he has faced and is averaging over 16 pitches per inning. His command, as graded by a -1.19% Called Strikes Above Average rate according to Baseball Prospectus, ranks in the bottom 20% of all pitchers that have thrown 40 innings in the MLB this season. No qualified starter has a walk rate higher than 10.8% this season and the league average among qualified starters is 8.2%, so it’s tough to imagine Hader being able to have sustained success in the rotation until he experiences a meaningful improvement in command. But because of his crossfire delivery, most scouts forecast his command to reach only a 45 grade at best on the 20-80 scouting scale, somewhere in the fringe between “average” and “below-average.”

McCalvy raised another meaningful point in his interview with 105.7 FM in Milwaukee this morning. When pitching as as a starter, Hader would be expected to appear in roughly 30 games per season. But out of the bullpen, he could impact the outcomes of perhaps as many as 60+ games once he becomes fully accustomed to pitching in that role. Given his ability to work multiple innings, it’s not difficult to envision a scenario where he could work 90+ innings in a true fireman role.

Baseball is slowly moving away from the idea of traditional starter and reliever roles, although this is not a new idea. Ryan Topp wrote a three-part series about about how the roles of pitchers could be approached differently at Disciples of Uecker back in 2013 (parts 1, 2, 3) and the topic has been brought up at various national sites as well. In practice, though, baseball has not yet fully embraced the eschewing of the more “old-fashioned” practices that have governed how managers use their pitchers for decades in favor of the “pitching staff of the future.”

We’ve known for awhile, of course, that the data supports that pitchers are more effective the fewer times they have to face a particular hitter. This season, starting pitchers have allowed a .734 OPS to opponents the first time through the order. That rises to .780 the second time through, and .800 during the third. Relievers have held batters to a .721 OPS going through the order their first time, but that number skyrockets to .848 when facing batters a second time during a relief appearance.

With that in mind, it’s particularly interesting to watch how Craig Counsell has managed his pitching staff as a whole this September. Performance issues by the likes of Matt Garza and Junior Guerra coupled with a season-ending injury to Jimmy Nelson and a minor injury to Brent Suter in August has left Milwaukee with only three trustworthy, fully stretched out starting pitchers on the active roster: Chase Anderson, Zach Davies, and rookie Brandon Woodruff. Suter has been given the ball three times to start this month but each of those games have been bullpen-by-committee type affairs; Matt Garza has also started two “bullpen games” in the last four weeks, and Jeremy Jeffress lead a “Johnny Wholestaff” day, as well.

Milwaukee’s bullpen ranks 3rd in the National League with 65 appearances and 6th with 61.2 innings pitched this month, but also rank 4th with a 2.63 ERA and 3rd with a 3.21 FIP in that time. Sure, expanded rosters have afforded Counsell more freedom with his bullpen, but the guys making these multi-inning appearances - Suter, Hader, and Jeffress - have been on the big league roster and getting multiple outs throughout the season.

It makes one wonder what a starting rotation might look like if instead of using a traditional 5th starter, a team used that spot for a “bullpen day” and called on multiple pitchers to go through a lineup one time each. My colleague at BP Milwaukee, Nicholas Zettel, did a study that concluded that the median #5 MLB rotation spot has produced a 5.18 RA9 (runs allowed per nine) and a 5.03 Deserved Run Average in 2017. Improving the production from this area of a pitching staff would be a huge boon to any team in the big leagues, as we are seeing before our very eyes in Milwaukee this September.

It may be a bit of a challenge to construct a roster in this fashion during the regular season, but it would be far from impossible. The Brewers have four clear candidates to begin next season in the starting rotation: Anderson, Davies, Woodruff, and Nelson (who may not be ready next April depending on the severity of his shoulder injury, which we won’t know until he has surgery). Milwaukee carried 13 pitchers on their roster for most of the season, meaning another nine spots open in the bullpen. At least 3 or 4 of those should be given to guys that can be counted on for multiple innings, the likes of Hader, Suter, Jeffress, and in the next tier perhaps one of Junior Guerra (who has eight strikeouts in 3.2 innings since being recalled!), Aaron Wilkerson, Matt Garza if his optioned is exercised, Taylor Williams, Jorge Lopez, etc (that just on the 40 man currently). That leaves another 5 or 6 spots for the traditional relievers like your closer in Knebel, setup men like Swarzak (though he’s a free agent at season’s end), Jacob Barnes, and Jared Hughes, and a specialist like Wei-Chung Wang or Tyler Webb.

Having players with minor league options would be pretty imperative in this scenario, as well. In an ideal situation, a team would be able to manipulate their roster to rotate fresh arms in the last spot or two down in the bullpen. We’ve already seen the Brewers’ front office make use of their AAA team and “well-timed” disabled list stints as a taxi squad of sorts in order to cover innings this season, so this shouldn’t really be much of an issue for the club. That’s especially true when one considers how many pre-arbitration pitchers with minor league options that are on the 40 man roster currently, and the wealth of quality arms coming up through the system right now.

David Stearns has remained steadfast in saying that the organization still views Josh Hader as a starting pitcher down the road. However Hader’s success in the bullpen, and the overall success of the bullpen as a unit, has to be giving him pause when it comes to how the organization will define the roles of Hader and the rest of its pitchers going forward. Craig Counsell has been encouraging us to think about pitching roles in a new light as this team tries to make a run into the playoffs, with the only true objective being to record 27 outs regardless of who pitches when. He has been referring to his cache of arms a unit of “out-getters” throughout the month.

Perhaps that’s a phrase we ought to consider getting used to.

Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs, Baseball-Reference, and Baseball Prospectus