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Profiling New Astros’ Reliever Josh Hader

Josh Hader is an elite closer and joins Bryan Abreu and Ryan Pressly to shut down the late innings

MLB: Los Angeles Dodgers at San Diego Padres
Josh Hader celebrates after defeating the LA Dodgers in Game 4 of the 2022 NLDS.
Kiyoshi Mio-USA TODAY Sports

At one time, the Astros used the three headed monster of Brad Lidge, Octavio Dotel, and Billy Wagner to finish games. This was very imposing to the opposition attempting to engineer a comeback in the late innings. In 2003, the three relievers combined for about 250 innings with the following ERA+ and K/9: Lidge 122 ERA+, 10.3 K/9; Dotel 177 ERA+, 10.0 K/9; Wagner 247 ERA+, 11.0 K/9. With the free agent acquistion of Josh Hader, the Astros are hoping that he will combine with Bryan Abreu and Ryan Pressly to provide a similar obstacle to opposing teams.

How good a closer is Josh Hader? Very. Abreu and Pressly have also been very good in the 8th and 9th inning. The acquistion of Hader not only shortens the game, but also must be scary for opposing teams. Psychologically, opposing hitters may become overly anxious to score before the three relievers enter the game. In addition, Hader adds a left handed delivery to the otherwise right hand heavy relievers in the 7th - 9th inning.

Since Hader is new to most Astros’ fans, let’s look at how well he has performed. It’s generally a great sign when the Baseball Savant pitching stat summary is full of red bars:

Hader 2023 Pitching Stats
Baseball Savant

The bars reflect 99th - 100th percentile for x-ERA, xBA, K%, and 90+ percentiles for Chase %, Whiff %, Barrel %, and Hard Hit %. The only blue (below average) bars are BB% and GB%, which is not surprising for a pitcher who lives for strike outs and relies upon a high fastball and disappearing slider.

Ben Clemens at Fangraphs has a nice discussion of this acquisition (“Josh Hader Gives Astros A Fearsome Bullpen”). He points out that Abreu and Pressly can be closers in their own right, and by adding Hader, “No team in baseball can match that top trio.”

Since he became a closer in 2019, Hader has proven himself elite among qualified league leading relievers. Over that time period:

  • Hader is No. 2 in WAR, just behind Hendriks and ahead of No. 3 Pressly. He is No. 4 in ERA (2.60).
  • Hader is No 1 in K/9 (15.15), almost 1 K/9 more than No. 2 Chapman.
  • Hader is No. 1 in Saves (153). He is No. 1 in Shutdown innings and 9th best at avoiding Meltdowns.
  • Run Expectancy 24 (RE24) is a good metric for evaluating relief pitchers. Hader is No. 2 (56.8 runs above average) in RE24, slightly behind Hendriks.
  • Hader is No. 1 in situational wins (WPA/LI). He is No. 2 in Batting Average Against (.162) and No. 4 in WHIP (0.98).

Hader’s Pitching Style

Josh Hader’s two main pitches are a high velocity (96-99 mph) sinker and a violent sinking slider. Hader’s sinker is unique because it is a “rising sinker,” which seems like a contradiction. In fact, his fastball was classified as a 4 seamer until 2022 when the classification was changed to sinker based on his two seam grip. He throws the ball from a side arm angle normally associated with a sinker, but instead of sinking the pitch rises.

This 538 article (published in 2019 when his fastball was still called a 4 seamer) describes his fastball as a “ghost pitch,” a “mysterious” pitch, and the most dominant fastball since tracking data became available. The article concludes that the uniqueness of the pitch is due to “spin efficiency” (high percentage of active spin) and the low arm angle. Dodgers’ hitter Max Muncy explains, “When he’s releasing the ball, it’s almost underneath his armpit, and so when he has a high-spin fastball from that angle, it really does look like it’s coming from the ground up, And then he’s throwing 97, 98 [mph] so it’s just very, very hard to get on top of that fastball.”

Hader’s slider starts off like a fastball but drops 25 inches more than the fastball. Ben Clemens credits the slider as one of the best in baseball, writing, “When batters swing at it, they make contact less than half of the time, which is as ridiculous as it sounds.” The pitching ninja provides video of Hader “annihilating the side” during the division series, eliminating the Dodgers.

Although Stuff+ ranks Hader well above average, the metric doesn’t take into account the deception in Hader’s delivery, which increases the effectiveness of his stuff. Hader’s herky jerky, left handed, side arm delivery both confuses the batter and conceals the ball well. If it adds a split second of hesitation to the batter’s decision, making contact becomes even more difficult. This YouTube link shows a 1st base view of Hader’s slde arm delivery.

Effect of 5 Year Contract

Hader has been elite over his career so far. But what will the future performance look like? There is no denying that a five year contract entails risk. But Hader’s age, lack of injury history, and consistent elite performance are all positive factors which may mitigate the risk. If the Astros are going to take the risk of a 5 year contract, Hader is one of the best candidates among MLB relief pitchers.

After looking at the ZIPS projections, Ben Clemens writes that Hader’s performance will decline over the 5 year contract, but that he is projected to remain a great pitcher during that span. ZIPS projects a 2028 (Year 5) ERA of 3.74. Hader’s Year 5 ERA is projected to be the same as Hector Neris’ 2024 ERA. If the ZIPS Year 5 ERA is correct, Hader continues to be an above average and useful relief pitcher in the final year of his contract.

Analyst Keith Law tweeted that the history of 4+ year contracts for relievers is dismal. After looking at some of the 4+ year reliever contracts over the last 10 years or so, my conclusion is that the results are not predominantly “dismal.” Perhaps this is simply semantics over what is meant by “dismal” performance. Some of the relievers didn’t continue to dominate to the same extent as previous years, and the final year of the contact was often problematic. But generally the relievers provided above average pitching for their teams during the contract.

I examined the ERA+ and K/9 for the following pitchers with 4+ year contracts: Robertson, Papelbon, Chapman, Melancon, Iglesius, and Hendriks. (Note that Papelbon, Melancon, and Iglesius were traded during the contract, and I included both teams in the calculation.) The cumulative ERA+ over the terms of the contracts averaged 146, meaning 46% above average. The cumulative K/9 over the term of the contract averaged 10.6 (which is also above average). Some of the signing teams may feel that the players didn’t meet their high expectations, but the pitching performances generally were not dismal.

Hendriks is a special case, because he pitched exceptionally well in his first three years for the White Sox. However, he didn’t pitch in the final year of the contract, because he was diagnosed with cancer. This was unpredictable, but also indicative of the inherent risk in multi-year contracts.

Presumably, the Astros have incorporated potential declining performance into their evaluation of the contract length. Most likely the Astros’ expectations are based heavily on the first three years of the contract, outweighing possible declining performance in the final year.