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What reintroducing a changeup could mean for Josh Hader

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Milwaukee’s ace reliever is working on his offspeed pitches to compliment his famous heater.

Milwaukee Brewers Summer Workouts Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

Any mention of Josh Hader will immediately bring to mind two things: fastballs and strikeouts. Since reaching professional baseball’s highest level in 2017, Hader leads all relievers with a 44.6% strikeout rate; he has maintained such a level of dominance while throwing his fastball 78.8% of the time.

Last season, the southpaw took his signature approach even further, increasing his fastball usage to 83%. As the summer progressed, concerns began to arise when opposing hitters were jumping on first-pitch heaters and driving them into the seats. Hader surrendered 15 home runs in 75 23 innings, 14 of which were hit off of his four-seamer.

In spite of his home run problem, Hader still had a season that most relievers dream of. He posted a career-best strikeout rate (47.8%), walk rate (6.9%), and swinging strike rate (22.7%) and finished the year with a 2.62 ERA, 2.23 xERA, 2.20 DRA, and 1.78 SIERA. Per Statcast, his fastball still held opponents to a .167 batting average and .275 wOBA.

Hader’s quality of contact stats were near the very bottom of the league, but making contact against him to begin with remained extremely difficult. He would be justified in continuing to throw his signature pitch over 80% of the time moving forward.

Instead, the lanky lefty’s preparation for the shortened 2020 campaign has included a focus on his secondary offerings. When he isn't throwing a fastball, he is typically unleashing his wicked slider, which completely dismantled opponents last season (.101 wOBA).

As he progressed through the minor leagues as a starting pitcher, Hader utilized a changeup as his third pitch. When he emerged as one of the best relievers in the game, he quickly shelved it. Hader’s changeup accounted for 7.6% of his pitches thrown in his rookie season. In the two years since, he has thrown a grand total of six changeups, including just one last season.

During MLB’s original Spring Training, beat reporter Adam McCalvy relayed that Hader was using Milwaukee’s high-tech pitching lab to redevelop his changeup.

Hader is working on his changeup. If it’s Spring Training and your name isn’t Trevor Hoffman, odds are good that you’re working on a changeup. Hader says he had a “decent” one back when he was a starting pitcher in the Orioles’ and Astros’ Minor League systems, but then he joined the Brewers’ bullpen midway through 2017 and started firing fastballs past hitters at a record rate. The changeup faded from his arsenal. Now he’s the two-time reigning National League Reliever of the Year, trying to make it three years in a row. That means taking another shot at harnessing the pitch.

When the Brewers reported for Summer Camp at the onset of July, the versatile relief weapon confirmed that he had continued to work on his tertiary pitch during MLB’s shutdown.

“The quarantine, really, was just focusing on trying to create the shapes of my pitches. So really dialing in on the changeup was one of the biggest things for me, and then moving to the slider. Just trying to make sure my secondary pitches are shaped tight and they are pretty sharp. That’s kind of one of the biggest things for me.”

Hader has broken out his changeup a few times during the team’s intrasquad scrimmages. On Sunday afternoon, Brewers Twitter member @smichaelis234 took notice and shared a clip of an offspeed pitch to Keon Broxton.

This particular changeup started at the bottom of the zone and had significant late fade. Hader’s fastball is thrown up in the zone and has elite rise as it crosses the plate. Having an effective changeup would improve his ability to change eye levels and keep hitters off-balance. In fact, an argument could be made that a refined changeup would be an even better compliment to his fastball than his slider is. Tunneling high and rising heat with a low and dipping changeup would cause nightmares for opponents.

We have yet to see how much, if at all, Josh Hader will incorporate a changeup into his plan of attack during the regular season. His powerful fastball will always be his go-to weapon, and he has proven that his current pitch mix is enough to make him an elite performer out of the bullpen. It is unlikely that he will drastically alter the approach that led to consecutive NL Reliever of the Year awards.

Instead, the changeup is a third pitch for Hader to keep in his back pocket should he ever need it. He will not come out of the gate throwing it at a high rate, but he may grow more comfortable with it over time. Hader will still rely primarily on mid-90s gas from his deceptive arm slot to blow hitters away. Dropping in a few offspeed offerings here and there will make that fastball even more effective.

Statistics courtesy of FanGraphs, Baseball Savant, and Baseball Prospectus.