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Josh Hader’s effectiveness remains tied to his fastball

The Brewers need the lights-out version of their closer, and while having an improved slider certainly helps, it still comes down to his fastball.

Milwaukee Brewers v Cincinnati Reds Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

Fresh off a second consecutive National League Reliever of the Year Award, Josh Hader’s season began in record-setting fashion. The Brewers closer did not allow a hit over his first 11 2/3 frames. Just as notably, his slider usage had doubled from 15.5% in 2019 to 30.9% to begin the 2020 campaign. His hard hit rate fell below 30% after it ranked among the worst in the league the year prior. It was easy to look at this information and conclude that Hader was evolving into a better, more complete version of himself.

Under the hood, however, were a couple of negative developments. Hader was still pitching extremely well, but he was not nearly as dominant as he was at his peak. During his hitless streak, his strikeout rate was 38%—still elite, but a notable decrease after he posted strikeout rates of 46.7% and 47.8% in 2018 and 2019, respectively. The former top prospect’s claim to fame was his electric fastball that has induced swings and misses at historic rates, but 13 of his first 18 punch-outs of the year came on his slider. The whiff rate on his fastball during that stretch was 30.5%. For most pitchers, that would be amazing, but for Hader, it was an 11-point decrease from 2019. He was still getting outs, but the hitless streak was being fueled by his slider with a dash of BABIP luck and little contribution from the fastball.

A sub-2.00 ERA with that approach was not sustainable, and the correction came rather abruptly when the southpaw coughed up four runs (including two home runs) in a blown save on September 12. After that game, the specs on Hader’s fastball compared to last season were as follows.

Josh Hader’s Fastball

Year Avg Velocity (MPH) Effective Velocity (MPH) K% Whiff% Zone% xwOBA
Year Avg Velocity (MPH) Effective Velocity (MPH) K% Whiff% Zone% xwOBA
2019 95.5 96.3 49.1% 41.0% 54.1% 0.255
2020 (through Sep 12) 94.3 89.9 20.6% 32.5% 47.1% 0.394

The 26-year-old’s fastball had lost a tick of velocity, and he was struggling to throw strikes with it. Perhaps most eye-popping stat was the sharp decrease in Effective Velocity, a metric that attempts to quantify how fast a pitch appears to a hitter based on location and sequencing. A comprehensive breakdown and history of the metric can be found here, but there is one core tenet to focus on in Hader’s case: pitches up and in require a quicker reaction time from the hitter than outside pitches. He was consistently missing well outside with his fastball, which helps explain the low Effective Velocity. A combination of lost velocity and poor control were preventing the fastball from being the lethal weapon it was in the past.

Maybe you’re skeptical, which would be reasonable considering that Effective Velocity is not a metric that is cited often. Let’s look at it from a different perspective: a video analysis.

Here is a sequence to Cubs utility man Ildemaro Vargas that ended in a home run, the second that Hader allowed in his worst outing of the season.

Hader’s velocity never exceeds 94 miles per hour in this at-bat. He misses the target with every fastball—twice well outside of the strike zone, once over the outer half of the plate, and finally a 92 mile-per-hour meatball right down the middle.

The star reliever saw his velocity and location improve after this outing, hence the September 12 cutoff date for the data above. In particular, a September 18 outing against the Royals seemed to mark a mild turnaround.

Hader would allow another home run to start the outing, this one to Salvador Perez. This fastball is down and once again over the outer half of the plate.

After allowing that home run, Hader quickly turned it around to strike out the side. He started Maikel Franco with three straight sliders before setting him down with this 96 mile-per-hour heater that split the zone in half horizontally but was elevated at his hands.

Hunter Dozier was up next; Hader gave him two fastballs on the inner half before getting him to chase the same pitch that got Franco.

Finally, another high fastball disposed of Bubba Starling.

After his blown save against the Cubs, Hader punched out 52.6% of opposing hitters, and eight of his ten strikeouts were recorded with the fastball. The heater returned to averaging 95.3 miles per hour with an Effective Velocity of 96. His command was not perfect, and that’s fine given that his game is built primarily on velocity and deception. It is consistently missing by the entire width or height of the plate that will get him in trouble. As long as his control is somewhat decent, his velocity is crisp, and he is able to work ahead in counts, he ought to be fine.

Hader with a less lethal fastball is still a solid reliever. His higher-than-usual ERA and ERA estimators still remained above average this season and were at least partially the product of a small sample size. His strikeout rate still ranked in the 98th percentile of all pitchers, according to Baseball Savant.

The Josh Hader that took the previously league by storm is still there, and the Brewers need him. With injuries to Corbin Burnes and Brett Anderson, Craig Counsell will have to rely on his bullpen more than ever in the upcoming Wild Card Series against the Dodgers, particularly Hader and rookie standout Devin Williams. The Brewers will need their prized lefty to be at his very best, and it all starts with having consistent mid-90’s velocity and semi-decent command of his fastball. His slider has emerged as a great weapon, but his signature four-seamer will determine how successful he is moving forward.

Statistics courtesy of FanGraphs, Baseball Savant, and Brooks Baseball