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Milwaukee Brewers trade candidate: Josh Hader

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Hader trade talk is a popular topic of late.

MLB: Milwaukee Brewers at Cincinnati Reds David Kohl-USA TODAY Sports

Prior to the 2019 Winter Meetings, Ken Rosenthal reported the Milwaukee Brewers were making Josh Hader available in trade. Since that time, Hader’s name has popped up over and over again in various baseball media outlets with rumor, innuendo, and speculation about potential suitors. In fact it has been reported that the New York Mets, Los Angeles Dodgers, and, the New York Yankees have interest in Hader.

In the Ken Rosenthal article in the Athletic (subscription required), he wrote that a trade for Hader was unlikely. Joel Sherman also suggested there was no traction in trade talks with the Yankees coming out of the Winter Meetings. Yet intrigue around this potential trade continues.

Josh Hader has quite simply been the best reliever in baseball not just because of his dominance as a closer, but his success in high leveraged situations too. As has been mentioned many times, the team that would pry Hader away from Milwaukee would have to pay a hefty price.

When referencing Hader’s dominance as a reliever, you have to begin with his strike out numbers. Very few in the history of baseball have achieved better strike out totals per nine than Josh Hader. In 2018 and 2019, his Ks per 9 were 15.82 and 16.41 respectfully. Although his career is young, pitching in just 204.2 innings over 2 12 seasons, Josh Hader has the best K/9 percentage (15.35) in the history of the sport for pitchers that have pitched at least 200 innings in their career. Aroldis Chapman is next at 14.84. To be fair, Chapman has accomplished his strike out totals 535.2 innings.

Whereas Chapman has been used primarily as a one inning closer, Hader has been utilized in a more diverse fashion. Obviously Hader became the Brewers’ closer in 2019, notching 37 saves. Unlike Chapman, however, Hader is often used for two and sometimes three inning, high leverage appearances. This was especially true in 2018 where he was brought in to shut down the best part of opposing teams’ lineups. A stat that illustrates his dominance in high leverage is Left on Base Percentage (LOB%). For all relievers with 200 or more innings pitched in a career, Hader has the highest LOB% ever at 86.9%. For a reference point, Craig Kimbrel in second at 84.4%.

To further demonstrate Hader’s dominance as a reliever, let’s look at xFIP. First of all xFIP is expected fielding independent pitching. FIP by itself is a measure of a pitcher’s ability at run prevention independent of fielding. xFIP is the same measure except it replaces a pitcher’s home run total with an estimate of how many home runs they should have allowed given the number of fly balls they surrendered while assuming a league average home run to fly ball percentage. In 2018 and 2019, he ranked third in each season among all pitchers who pitched more than 50 innings. In 2018 only Edwin Diaz and Dellin Betances, and in 2019 only Ryan Pressley and Kirby Yates were better in this category than Hader.

Chapman and Kimbrel are all-time great relievers. Diaz, Betances, Pressley, and Yates have had great years. These numbers suggest Hader could be an all-time great as long as he remains healthy. Some question whether the way he has been employed by Milwaukee will cause issues later. As a result, some have expressed concern, mainly Dan O’Dowd at the MLB Network, about that being the reason the Brewers putting Hader on the market. That conjures thoughts of Edwin Diaz, Dellin Betances, Andrew Miller, Wade Davis, Greg Holland, and the multitude of other volatile relievers that have put together a few strong seasons as relievers only to fade later in their careers. Is Hader on his way to a Craig Kimbrel, Aroldis Chapman, Trevor Hoffman, or Mariano Rivera type of career? Will he have a Andrew Miller, Dellin Betances, Wade Davis, or Greg Holland type of career? Either way he is valuable, but any acquiring team would have to measure their return to Milwaukee with the level of risk with which they are comfortable.

His worth would be based in part on the number of potential suitors that see Hader as a dominant reliever for years to come. It is hard to know that. His price is also not known because there have not been relievers of this quality at this age with four years of affordable control made publicly available for trade in recent history. Couple that with the player’s market of the 2019-20 offseason, and Hader is as hot a commodity as there is available even with volatility risk around the position. For reference, let’s look at a few deals for top tier relievers in the past five years.

The 2018 Brad Hand and Adam Cimber for Francisco Mejia (ranked #26 MLB prospect according to MLB.com) trade might shed some light on Hader’s value as it comes closest to the quality, age, and control combination, but not quite. While Hand had been dominant in 2017, he was just really good in 2018 at the time of the trade posting a 3.05 ERA and 3.18 FIP. He was 28 years old at the time. Cleveland did trade for Hand’s team friendly contract that paid him $17.5 million over three years with a $10 million team option for 2021 or $1 million buyout.

The 2016 trade that sent Andrew Miller to Cleveland for Clint Frazier, Justus Sheffield (ranked #15 and #78 MLB prospects according to MLB.com for 2016 season), Ben Heller, and current Brewer, J.P. Feyereisen might give some context too. At the time of this trade, Miller was the best reliever in baseball posting a 1.39 ERA and a 1.78 FIP. He was also 31 years old at the time of the trade, and he was still owed $18 million for the 2017-18 season. While Miller was even better than Hader, he was older with less control and more expensive.

It would be remiss to not include the Aroldis Chapman trade. The feeling in Chicago front office in 2016 was they had the best team in baseball and they should go all in. They did as their one flaw of a mediocre bullpen was rectified via the acquisition of Chapman. Yet they gave up a substantial sum for a couple of months of Chapman. The Cubs sent future star, Gleyber Torres along with Billy McKinney, Rashad Crawford, and Adam Warren. Chapman offered no arbitration nor contractual control. In fact he resigned with the Yankees the very next season. Yet most in Chicago are good with the trade as the Cubs took home a World Series title that year.

No team in MLB will have the type of pressure to win than the Chicago Cubs did in 2016. Thus the Yankees were able get back a king’s sum for Chapman, but there are some big market teams that have a lot of pressure on them to win a title. Might the Brewers be thinking to take advantage of that pressure within a players’ market where cost does matter due to the luxury tax with the most feared reliever in baseball who is under long-term control at a relatively good price as the bait for a huge return? It kind of makes sense if they can get it.

Over the coming days, I will attempt identify and assess the assets of teams that have expressed interest or who have assets Milwaukee might find valuable enough to work a trade. Stay tuned!

Baseball statistics courtesy of Fangraphs