Josh Hader, Chris Hammond and What’s His Name: The Incredible Case of the Middle Relief Ace

Chad Green was one of the best relievers in baseball in 2017 without recording a save. (via Keith Allison)

“Unhittable middle reliever.” It’s a strange turn of phrase, right up there with “left-handed catcher,” “productive out,” and “low-sodium Spam.” But few creatures on God’s earth are as astonishing as relief pitchers, wondrous one year and mediocre the next. Every so often, a guy will come out of nowhere in particular to have one of the greatest seasons anyone has ever seen, like Chad Green in 2017, or Eric O’Flaherty in 2011, or Chris Hammond in 2002.

Josh Hader doesn’t quite fit into that category, as he was a true closer for a period of time in 2018. But for much of the year, the untouchable Marylander with the hair of 2017 Jacob DeGrom and command of 2018 Jacob DeGrom managed to take the major leagues by storm from a fairly unusual position: the early innings.

So just how unusual is it for a guy to dominate despite recording no saves? (To be fair, Hader did record 12 saves this year, but if Corey Knebel hadn’t gotten the yips, he likely wouldn’t have.) The answer? Really unusual. It has happened only 15 times since 1988, which was the beginning of the modern closer era. (It was the first year Dennis Eckersley recorded more than 20 saves — he notched 45 of them.) I can almost guarantee you won’t remember most of those names. Indeed, that 15-person list is basically the hardest Sporcle in the world, and I made the quiz to prove it.

But in this article, I’m not just trying to measure relievers by cold, hard FIP — I’m only writing about one of those 15 below. I mean to celebrate unlikely achievements, and focus on guys who don’t get the headlines — even if that requires sidestepping some of the best stories from the back of the bullpen, from Fernando Rodney’s magical comeback in 2012 to Zach Britton’s indescribable 2016.

Now, to put those latter two years in a little extra context, over the past century, those two men are responsible for two of the just three pitcher seasons during which a pitcher has posted an ERA below the 0.70 ERA mark Mariano Rivera posted across his 141 postseason innings. Those three seasons are Eckersley in 1990 (0.61 ERA), Rodney in 2012 (0.60), and Britton in 2016 (0.54).

No one else has ever done in a single regular season what Rivera did over 141 playoff innings — two full seasons’ worth of a heavy relief load. That’s how good Mo was.

But that’s why Mo was a closer, and the greatest who ever lived. A lights-out non-closer is a little more surprising.

Chris Hammond, 2002

Hammond was drafted in 1986, and taken in the sixth round. (He told his SABR biographer that as a two-way player in college, he was surprised the Reds wanted him as a pitcher.) He never had much of a fastball, but at first it didn’t stop him, as he threw a borderline abusive number of innings in an old-school Cincinnati farm system that didn’t want or need to promote him. The Reds’ rotation that was doing just fine with the Nasty Boys at the back of the pen.

Meanwhile, Hammond spent all of 1989 and 1990 in Triple-A, making a combined total of 48 starts with a 2.79 ERA in 306.1 innings, while the major league Reds were winning the World Series for Marge Schott. When Hammond finally came up, he was mediocre as a rookie and sophomore. Eventually, the Reds flipped him to the expansion Marlins for a PTBNL and a marginal prospect. The exigencies of circumstance kept him in the Florida rotation, and he started to pitch well in 1994 and 1995.

But he never pitched 200 innings, and the injury bug moved him to the pen and, increasingly, to the doctor’s office. From 1996-1998, he threw a total of 160 innings with a 6.30 ERA. Already 32, and with 1,620.2 innings pitched across the majors and minors, he retired.

Three years later, the itch struck and he decided to un-retire. He pitched in the Cleveland farm system, then was released and picked up by the Atlanta Braves, who were delighted when the then-35-year-old spun change-ups from 58 to 72 miles per hour.

His change-up was accompanied by a production on the mound, as Tyler Kepner wrote in The New York Times:

He delivers his changeup awkwardly, stomping hard on the mound with his right foot and then releasing it. The harder he stomps, the more he is concentrating. “It looks funny,’ [Yankees vice president Mark] Newman said, ‘but more importantly, hitters think it looks funny.”

He spent all of 2001 in the minors but made the Braves major league roster out of spring training the following year, his first major league action in four years. And he was immediately brilliant.

At first, Braves manager Bobby Cox used him as a long reliever; in April, he made eight appearances, five of which were at least two innings. In his second game, he pitched three innings and gave up three runs.

The rest of the year, he would twirl another 72.1 innings, and allow just five more earned runs. That comes to a 0.62 ERA; all told, he ended the year with his ERA at 0.95.

It was the first time since Eckersley in 1990 that a pitcher had thrown 50 innings and ended the year with an ERA under 1.00, and, per baseball-reference, just the eighth time since 1900 that a pitcher had done so. The Yankees rewarded him in the offseason with a two-year, $5.6 million contract to replace Mike Stanton. He remained superb in 2003 and 2004.

After that, he was 39, and time began to catch up to the crafty lefty with what Kepner called a “Bugs Bunny change.” But it was one of the most remarkable comebacks in memory.

Dennys Reyes, 2006

Dennys Reyes was, for much of his career, an unremarkable journeyman. From his debut in 1997 to 2005, he played for eight teams in nine seasons, posting a 4.80 ERA and offsetting his 8.2 K/9 with a queasy 5.3 BB/9. He was, in short, a perfect candidate for Minnesota’s uncanny bullpen black magic that took a banjo-hitting, small-ball-preaching, medium-market team to six division titles in nine years from 2002 to 2010.

Reyes took his place in a bullpen with Joe Nathan, Juan Rincon, Jesse Crain, Pat Neshek and Matt Guerrier, and followed his teammates’ lead: he stopped walking people, and turned into a true relief ace.

Not walking people was a clear organizational strategy in Minnesota. In 2005, Carlos Silva stunned baseball by yielding a total of nine walks all year; it was the first time a starting pitcher had qualified for the ERA title with single-digit walks since the 1880s.

If throwing strikes were as simple as wanting to do so, Jonathan Sanchez would have had a longer career. (And 50 Cent might be invited to throw out another first pitch.) But the steroid-era Twins implemented control as an organizational strategy — and, somehow, they pulled it off.

In his book Evaluating Baseball’s Managers, Hardball Times contributor Chris Jaffe tracks the tendencies of baseball skippers by comparing players’ performances as they played for different managers. His conclusions on Ron Gardenhire, looking at the period from 2002-2008, are stunning:

In all the decades since the bullpen has been an established part of the major league roster, no manager has ever had a seven-year stretch like this in getting the best production out of his relievers… He may not be able to keep up the greatest stretch of bullpen performances in baseball history, but he is still the one who presided over it.

Reyes signed in Minnesota as a free agent in February of 2006, after having been released in San Diego in July of 2005; he hadn’t had a major league contract in seven months. He spent most of April in the minors and received his call-up at the end of the month. He then proceeded to give up two earned runs in May, one in June, one in July, none in August, and one in September. Just like that, the recent castoff had a 0.89 ERA on the year, even better than Hammond.

But he was typically used as a specialist: in 41 of his 66 appearances, he picked up only one or two outs. And while his control was never again remotely as good as it had been in 2006, that usage pattern remained for the rest of his career; from 2007 to 2011, he had a very good 3.20 ERA, but he pitched just 154.2 innings across 259 appearances. In order to use him effectively, his managers played match-ups. It worked.

Eric O’Flaherty, 2011

Another southpaw sixth-rounder, Eric O’Flaherty was drafted by the Mariners in 2003, Pat Gillick’s last draft with the team. Three years later (and two years before they waived him), Dave Cameron wrote this about him on U.S.S. Mariner:

O’Flaherty, by the way, is pretty good. He was drafted out of Walla Walla HS in the sixth round of the 2003 draft. They tried him as a starter in ’04 with poor results, but improved after a move to the bullpen and a repeat assignment in Wisconsin last year. He started the season in Inland Empire and worked his way up to Tacoma while sustaining lights out success at each level.

He throws 90-93 from the left side with good sink on his fastball. He has an above average slider and good command.

He’s just 21 and has taken a big step forward this year. With his sinking fastball and effective out-pitch slider, he could be a very good left handed reliever. He’s pretty much major league ready, and it wouldn’t be a big surprise to see him pitch quite well the rest of the year.

It was a prescient depiction of a man who, as it turned out, was just three years from being a dominant lefty — but Bill Bavasi had no patience. (Not the first time those words have been written.) O’Flaherty threw 52 mediocre major league innings in 2007, then suffered a back injury and had a nightmare campaign in 2008: 6.2 innings, 15 earned runs.

The M’s waived him at the tender age of 23, and the Braves promptly picked him up. He was immediately good (3.04 ERA in 2009, 2.45 ERA in 2010), but his best was to come.

In 2011, Eric O’Flaherty appeared in the same number of games as he had in 2009 — 78 — but he logged 17.1 more innings. He was too good to use as a LOOGY. He was not, however, capable of cracking the back end of the bullpen, where the Braves’ fearsome twosome of Jonny Venters and Craig Kimbrel mowed through the eighth and ninth innings with upper-90s fastballs and lethal sliders.

So O’Flaherty became the “O” in “O’Ventbrel,” a nickname Sports Illustrated found so lacking that it all but begged Braves fans to come up with a better one.

Whatever you called him, he was impossible to touch. He gave up nine runs in 73.2 innings, eight of them earned.

O’Flaherty’s 2011 was one of only five seasons in baseball history in which a pitcher threw at least 70 innings and yielded fewer than 10 total runs. The others were Rollie Fingers in 1981, Dennis Eckersley in 1990, Fernando Rodney in 2012, and Wade Davis in 2014.

Not bad for a seventh-inning guy.

Chad Green, 2017

When people complain about the Yankees, they typically cite the limitless cash that allows the Bronx Bombers to import readymade stars to fill pinstriped uniforms.

But the Yankees’ continued excellence has a great deal to do with their skill at finding players like Chad Green, an 11th-round draft pick out of the University of Louisville taken by the Tigers and traded to the Yankees as a throw-in for journeyman lefty Justin Wilson.

Four years after his draft, and two years after the trade, Green established himself as one of the best relief pitchers in baseball. In fact, over 2017 and 2018, he had the fifth-most WAR of all major league relievers, behind only Blake Treinen, Craig Kimbrel, Edwin Diaz, and Felipe Vazquez, highly-prized closers all.

How good was Chad Green in 2017? Just read the top of a story that Pinstripe Alley ran that September:

A young pitcher named Mariano Rivera reported to spring training in 1996 without a guaranteed spot on the roster. He had made a string of starts for Buck Showalter’s Yankees before moving to the bullpen during the team’s playoff run the previous year. Rivera had been unspectacular in either role but made the staff coming out of camp to begin his second year. … Like his legendary predecessor, Chad Green served as both a starter and reliever during his rookie campaign…

In just about any context, comparing a young pitcher to Rivera seems staggeringly hyperbolic. Especially considering that two years prior, the same blog ran a piece introducing him to Yankees fans following a trade acquisition by describing him like this:

The Yankees obtained two minor league right-handers, Luis Cessa and Chad Green. Cessa, 23, is the higher-profile addition. … Green throws three pitches: a mid-90s fastball plus a mid-80s change and a mid-80s slider. None of them are particularly excellent. While Green has worked as a starter throughout the minor leagues, concerns about his ability to pitch deep into games might ultimately relegate him to the pen. Green’s results have surpassed his stuff thus far.

So what happened? As Jeff Sullivan wrote in 2017, “Green’s fastball has become something extraordinary.” He started throwing a lot more high fastballs and got a LOT of strikeouts, and just like that, he was one of the best relievers anywhere.

Obviously, not every middling starting pitching prospect can become a shutdown reliever just by throwing more high fastballs. But the Yankees found a guy who could, and they got him as the lower-profile prospect in a trade for Luis Cessa.

Josh Hader, 2018

The man who inspired the blog post. Josh Hader had a tremendous year on the mound, though his feel-good narrative was permanently clouded by the discovery of tweets he sent in high school contained racist and homophobic messages, for which he publicly apologized.

The tweets were sent around the time the Orioles drafted him in the 19th round out of high school in Maryland in 2012. A year later, they sent him to Houston in a deadline deal for Bud Norris, and two years after that, Houston traded him to Milwaukee as part of the blockbuster Carlos Gomez trade, in which Brett Phillips and Domingo Santana also went north to Wisconsin and Mike Fiers came south to Texas.

Hader wasn’t exactly an unknown quantity: some months after the Milwaukee trade, ranked him as the 61st-best prospect in baseball going into the 2016 season. (Phillips was No. 32 on the same list.) As is so often the case, the rankings were evaluating him for what he was: a good starting pitching prospect. But as with Hammond, O’Flaherty and Green, he wouldn’t stay a starter.

It’s not that Hader washed out — in 2016, he had a sparkling 3.29 ERA across 126 innings and 25 starts in Double-A and Triple-A, with an eye-popping 11.5 K/9 and 2.93 K/BB. But the Brewers needed help in the bullpen and they took it where they could find it. Just as with Jonathan Papelbon, who was a great minor league starter once upon a time, Hader’s success in the pen may make it impossible to move him back to the rotation.

Of course, he’s collected a few saves, so he isn’t as obscure as the previous shutdown setup men I profiled. If his arm stays healthy, he’ll probably have a big major league payday ahead of him. No matter what, it will easily dwarf the $25,000 signing bonus the Orioles gave him to forego his commitment to Anne Arundel Community College. A pretty good find for the 19th round, when other teams’ assistant GMs are drafting the general manager’s son as a favor to the boss.

Relievers are baseball’s equivalent of running backs: both essential and fungible, teams typically ride them into the ground during their team-controlled years, and very few survive with their arm strength intact to free agency.

The only relievers who get big bucks tend to be the guys who pitch the ninth inning and rack up the saves, regardless of whether they’re truly the 30 best bullpen arms in baseball. Hammond notched the first sub-1.00 ERA in a dozen years and was offered a measly $5.6 million for two years — and he jumped at the chance to say yes, as it was life-changing money for him, even if it barely rated as pocket change for his new team. (The previous offseason, the Yankees signed Steve Karsay to a four-year, $22.25 million contract. But Karsay was a former closer.)

Up till now, relievers have had two main jobs in life: shorten the game, and protect the starting pitchers. One reason relievers are so injury-prone is that teams would rather overuse them than abuse their starters — after all, reliever wages are low, and plenty of guys who turn into amazing relievers are available as late-round draftees and trade throw-ins. Good firewood is more expensive than lighter fluid.

With the rise of bullpenning, it’s possible the traditional shape of a game and the role of a reliever will shift, further deemphasizing traditional closers and emphasizing times through the order and match-ups. Still, no matter what, pitchers like O’Flaherty, Hammond, Green, Reyes and Hader will be worth their weight in gold.

Perhaps, one day, the best pitchers will be recognized for their performance, no matter what inning they dominate.

Alex is a writer for The Hardball Times.
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Jetsy Extrano
5 years ago

I didn’t notice Chris Hammond at the time, that’s a great story.

Bill Bavasi did a lot of things that pissed me off, and many that were worse in terms of value lost, but giving away EOF was probably… oh, the second, after Horacio Ramirez.

5 years ago

The Giants are clearly stripping it down to the studs after the last gasp in 2018 that didn’t ultimately work, and Belt’s 50 missed games due to injury was a prime reason for the failure. I am studying law now and am fond of writing, and not so long ago I started to get involved in baseball, Please explain the new rule introduced in baseball. For example, the second and third bases are occupied, and the batter coming out to bat immediately without intensive walk goes to first base.