Heading into 2018, we knew that Josh Hader was a unique weapon out of the Brewers bullpen. What we didn’t know at the time is just how unique or how big of a weapon he would turn out to be.
The 3rd-Most Valuable Brewer as voted on by the Brew Crew Ball community put up one of the most dominating seasons a relief pitcher has ever had, setting a new Major League record for left-handed relievers with 143 strikeouts.
Despite throwing just 81.1 innings, Hader had the second-most strikeouts on the team, finishing just 13 strikeouts behind Jhoulys Chacin despite throwing roughly 110 fewer innings. In fact, Hader ranked in the top 70 in the majors in strikeouts, piling up more punchouts than starters like Lance McCullers Jr., Danny Duffy and Jake Arrieta.
We got an early preview of just how special Hader’s season would be on April 30th, when he took the mound in the bottom of the 7th inning, and recorded strikeouts for the final 8 outs of the game. He was the first relief pitcher to ever record 8 strikeouts in an appearance shorter than 3 innings.
It was such a dominating performance that from that point, the way Craig Counsell was using Hader became a nearly daily topic of debate. Whenever the bullpen gave up a late lead or turned a small deficit into a larger one and Hader wasn’t used, Counsell had to answer questions. Repeatedly, he said he was taking the long view when it came to managing Hader’s innings and, as it turned out, effectiveness.
Perhaps because of the way he was limited in the regular season, Hader was up to the challenge when the team leaned on him heavily in the playoffs.
Hader didn’t allow a single baserunner in the three games he appeared in during the NLDS against Colorado, striking out 4 batters across 2.1 innings.
In Game 1 of the NLCS, once the Brewers took a 5-1 lead after 4 innings, Counsell went for the jugular and deployed Hader for the next 3 innings. He struck out 4 batters and allowed just 2 singles, throwing 34 of his 46 pitches for strikes. In Game 7, with Chacin struggling through the first 2 innings of the game, Counsell again turned to Hader -- this time in an attempt to keep the team in the game as it fought for a World Series spot. Hader did just that, throwing 3 more shutout innings while striking out 4, but the offense couldn’t hold up their end of the bargain.
It’ll be hard for Hader to duplicate this kind of success next year -- a 15.8 K/9 rate is simply ridiculous, and it would be unreasonable to expect it again -- but his ability to shut down offenses for innings at a time and mow down the meat of opposing batting orders was a big part in the Brewers being able to get by with what was perceived to be a less than quality starting rotation.
There are still plenty of doubters when it comes to the Brewers’ pitching strategy, but if there’s one thing everyone agrees on, it’s that it worked this year in large part because of Josh Hader.
Statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference