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Josh Hader’s struggles are fixable

Hader’s recent performance has nothing to do with raw stuff and everything to do with command

Milwaukee Brewers v San Francisco Giants Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images

This isn’t the first time that July has been unkind to Josh Hader.

In 2019, Hader allowed five earned runs in 11 13 innings. Last season, he allowed just eight earned runs all season, but six of them came in July.

The midseason struggles have emerged again this year, but this time around, Hader has struggled to an extent he had never experienced before.

In 5 13 innings, he has coughed up 12 runs, including five home runs. Half of the damage came in his final outing before the All-Star break, which resulted in one of the most stunning Brewers losses in recent memory.

Handed a three-run lead against the Giants, Hader imploded, allowing six runs while recording just one out. San Francisco torched him for three home runs in the inning, capped by a walk-off grand slam by Mike Yastrzemski.

Hader has allowed at least one run in each outing since a scoreless inning on July 3. His ERA has more than quadrupled from 1.05 to 4.50 in the process.

The Brewers are heavily reliant on winning close games with a dominant back end of their bullpen, meaning they are not a team that can succeed with a struggling closer. Hader and the Brewers need answers, and they need them immediately.

Fortunately, those answers are not hard to find, and they ease the concern prompted by Hader’s ugly July line. While the extent of his struggles has reached new heights, the driving factors behind his uncharacteristic performance are not new.

Hitters are slugging .944 against Hader’s signature fastball in July after slugging just .226 through the end of June. However, that has nothing to do with the quality of his stuff.

Through the end of June, Hader’s fastball averaged 97.1 mph with a perceived velocity of 97.7 mph and an average spin rate of 1991 rpm. He has continued to average 97 mph (97.4 mph perceived velocity) this month, and his spin rate has increased slightly to 2037 rpm.

Hader’s fastball is not behaving any differently out of his hand, nor has it lost any of its life. What has changed is where he’s locating it.

Hader is an oddity. He throws the ball with a two-seam grip, but his fastball moves like a rising four-seamer. Therefore, it plays best up in the zone, and heaters above the belt have been Hader’s bread and butter since he broke into the big leagues.

Unfortunately, he has been unable to find his command in recent weeks. Instead of pounding the upper third of the zone with his fastball, Hader has been missing down the middle and middle-in to right-handed hitters.

Hader has allowed three home runs on his fastball this month. Given the locations of those pitches, it’s hardly a surprise that opponents did damage.

Meanwhile, Hader’s fastball is still playing like it always has when he manages to get it in the upper third of the strike zone. He has induced seven whiffs out of 13 swings against upper-third fastballs in July. He has allowed two hits on such pitches, both of which were bloop singles with exit velocities of 73.4 and 67.9 mph, respectively.

While poor fastball location is the main reason why Hader has looked like a batting practice pitcher as of late, it’s also worth noting that he has gotten away with fastballs over the plate in the past without getting burned this badly.

Opponents did virtually no damage against Hader when he missed down with fastballs earlier in the year. That has changed in July.

Furthermore, the average vertical location of his fastball also hovered around belt-high in April, but Hader went unscored upon in 10 appearances to begin the year.

To solve this piece of the puzzle, one must revisit how Hader has evolved as a pitcher over his six big-league seasons.

The league has not suddenly figured out Hader’s fastball. That already happened a couple of years ago.

Opponents recognized that making consistent contact with the pitch is borderline impossible. Their new approach was to swing hard every time in hopes that when they did make contact, it would go for extra bases. That’s why Hader allowed 15 home runs in 2019 despite a career-best 47.8% strikeout rate.

It did not take long for him to thwart this approach. Hader fought back by throwing dramatically more sliders to keep hitters off his fastball.

The improved fastball-slider mix made Hader virtually untouchable last year and for most of this year’s first half. By locating the slider at or slightly below the bottom of the zone, Hader gave hitters another pitch to think about and additional areas of the zone to protect.

Since the calendar has flipped to July, the slider has become a non-factor. Hader is either bouncing it in the dirt or hanging it up in the zone.

Hitters are now on attack mode against fastballs and spitting on sliders, prompting some to suggest that Hader may be tipping his pitches. It’s more likely that his inability to land his breaking ball has enabled opponents to eliminate it and hunt fastballs.

When hitters see more fastballs at the belt and have no reason to swing at sliders, it produces comfortable swings and loud contact. Do opponents know what’s coming, or is poor command making it extremely easy to guess correctly?

Joey Bart’s leadoff home run in the Giants game serves as a perfect example. While that fastball was at the belt, it was also on the inside corner, a location where one would not expect Hader to get hurt. Because Hader missed with a first-pitch slider to fall behind 1-0, Bart, who stands far off the plate, geared up for a belt-high fastball and was able to pull his hands in and launch it.

When Hader is at his best, hitters are almost always in defense mode. His fastball is tough to hit up in the zone when they know it’s coming, and it becomes even more challenging when they have to protect against a slider at their knees. They have a better chance of making contact on a fastball down but could still be late if the slider is in the back of their minds.

When he has command of both pitches, Hader is untouchable. Even if his slider is not effective on a given day, he can survive for an inning exclusively on fastballs if they’re all thrown up in the zone. Similarly, an effective slider enables him to get away with occasional mistakes with his fastball.

Take away both the elevated fastball and the slider, and it only takes a simple one-dimensional approach—punish meatballs—to light him up. That’s precisely what has happened over the past three weeks, and it culminated in an implosion just before the All-Star break.

Because Hader’s poor performance is strictly command-related, he should be able to bounce back. In each of his five full big-league seasons, he’s had stretches of varying durations where he has not been able to throw the ball where he wants to. The fact that Hader is still throwing enough pitches in the strike zone to get hit means that he doesn’t have a more dramatic problem, such as the yips.

An August game in 2019 against the Washington Nationals proved that it doesn’t take much for him to lock back in. Hader had allowed runs in five of his last six games and opened the bottom of the ninth with a walk, double, and single to blow a one-run lead. After an intentional walk loaded the bases with no one out, he struck out Trea Turner, Adam Eaton and Anthony Rendon in order to send the game to extra innings. He would allow just three runs in his final 19 13 regular-season innings.

Hader has gone through rough patches in the past. This career-worst stretch makes it clear that it doesn’t take much for him to go from untouchable to home run machine. However, his track record demonstrates that he is the former the overwhelming majority of the time. He’ll find that version of himself again sooner than later.

Statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference, Baseball Savant, and BrooksBaseball.