The Rise of the New Fireman, Josh Hader

The definition of a fireman has evolved over the years, and Josh Hader is one of the game’s best at present. (via Minda Haas Kuhlmann)

About a year and a half ago in this space, I asked when — or if — we would ever see another Willie Hernandez, the brilliant ace reliever who earned the 1984 MVP with the Detroit Tigers. Hernandez’s 1984 was, in my opinion, the best relief season of all time. Hernandez appeared in 80 games and finished 68, both league-leading totals, and despite going multiple innings in a majority of his appearances, Hernandez finished with a ludicrous 1.92 ERA and 0.94 WHIP over 140.1 innings of work to go with 32 saves.

A few other relievers can boast similar campaigns — see Jim Kern’s brilliant 1979 with the Rangers, Goose Gossage’s role-defining performances as a fireman for the 1975 White Sox and 1977 Pirates, or Mark Eichhorn’s sparkling first full season with the Blue Jays in 1986. But Hernandez stands out as the anchor of one of the best teams of the 1980s and perhaps the ultimate example of just how oppressive the multi-inning reliever can be for opponents when supported by a strong lineup and starting rotation. Hernandez posted just 3.2 fWAR, but he was talented at drawing weak contact and is likely underestimated by FIP. Hernandez finished the 1984 season with an absurd plus-8.58 Win Probability Added, a full win better than the next best relief season since 1969, the year the save statistic was instituted.

That pitching archetype all but died in the 1990s and 2000s as the Cult of the Save dominated relief ideologies. Since 1990, no reliever has gone over 130 innings pitched; since 2000, the record for innings pitche by a reliever is 107 in 2003 by Steve Sparks, a knuckleballer who split time between the Tigers and Athletics and posted a 4.88 ERA in mostly mop-up work. The fireman archetype was all but scrapped in favor of the lockdown closer, exemplified by Mariano Rivera and Trevor Hoffman — relievers who could pick up a four-, five-, or even six-out save in a pinch, but who were generally called upon for three outs and three outs only.

I concluded that a number of structural concerns would prevent the arrival of a neo-Willie Hernandez. Pitchers who are good enough to fill this role are almost always pushed toward starting. Relievers and their agents prefer to be in a traditional closer’s role thanks to the way the arbitration and free agent markets value saves. Managers prefer defined roles to keep things simple and ward off second-guessing. Many relievers go through the minors pitching in a one-inning role and aren’t prepared to sustain their A-plus stuff for multiple innings and as many as 30 or 40 pitches. For the new fireman to appear, I thought, too many stars would have to align.

But align they have this season in Milwaukee in the form of electric 24-year-old lefty Josh Hader. When the Brewers’ Opening Day closer, Corey Knebel, suffered an injury just days into the season, Hader turned into the rock in Milwaukee’s bullpen. Through May 15, Hader has already compiled 1.4 Wins Above Replacement thanks to a 1.44 ERA and 0.91 FIP powered by 50 strikeouts in 25 innings — yes, that’s an 18 K/9, or a 2 K/1 if you prefer. His game log thus far is as close as you can get to the workload of pitchers like Hernandez and Gossage in the ’70s and ’80s. In 15 appearances, Hader has recorded at least two innings pitched nine times and at least four outs 11 times.

His magnum opus came April 30 against the Reds. With one out in the bottom of the seventh and Joey Votto stepping to the plate, Brewers manager Craig Counsell made the call to the bullpen for Hader, his best left-handed reliever. Hader struck out Votto on three pitches, the last a slider that bit hard into the dirt and left Votto — not just an elite slugger, but a hitter with one of the best approaches in the game — looking like a fool. Votto was not the only one. Not a single Red in the final three frames was able to put the ball in play against Hader. Tucker Barnhart drew a walk in the eighth inning, but Hader struck out the other seven Reds hitters he faced. It is the only eight-out save in major league history with all eight outs recorded via the strikeout.

Hader has followed a winding path to get where he is now. He was a prospect with major talent but a few red flags, primarily his delivery, but the Brewers believed in Hader enough to target him in the Carlos Gomez trade. That trade, let’s not forget, never would have happened if the Mets hadn’t rejected Gomez’s physical a few days prior; the proposed trade with the Mets would have netted them Wilmer Flores and Zack Wheeler instead of Hader, Domingo Santana, Brett Phillips and Adrian Houser. Brewers fans should thank Mets doctors daily.

Hader was fantastic as a starter in his first season in the minors, as he cruised to a 3.29 ERA with 161 strikeouts in 126 innings split between Double-A Biloxi and Triple-A Colorado Springs in 2016. The nest year was rougher; Hader posted a 5.37 ERA in 12 starts for Colorado Springs. It was easy to blame the environment, arguably the worst for pitchers in organized baseball this side of High Desert. The Brewers decided to give Hader a shot to work out of the major league bullpen in the second half of the season, and he was a revelation. In 35 appearances, Hader lasted 47.2 innings and struck out 68 batters, a performance that was good for 1.1 WAR even though his first outing didn’t come until June 10.

Had Hader stumbled at all in his first crack at a bullpen role, it’s very likely he would have returned to the minors to resume working toward a starting role to begin the 2018 season. But his success allowed the Brewers to consider him for a bullpen role on a 2018 squad that was built to contend immediately. Hader certainly wasn’t going to be ready to handle a full starter’s workload, as his professional career high in innings was just 123.1 in 2014. On many teams, this would have resulted in the young Hader getting pushed into the closer’s role, but Milwaukee already had Knebel on hand, coming off an All-Star campaign in his first year handling the ninth inning.

Instead, the Brewers decided to get creative. The roster has been shuffling all season long, but a big reason why they have had enough flexibility to remain competitive is the presence of two multi-inning relievers in Hader and Jeremy Jeffress, who has been equally fantastic in a similar role. The right-handed Jeffress doesn’t stretch out as much as Hader does — he has recorded more than three outs seven times and completed two innings twice in 22 outings — but the combination of Hader and Jeffress in the same bullpen has proven incredibly potent.

The Brewers’ starting rotation, which is competent but lacks high-end talent, doesn’t have to last deep into games and can focus on the first two times through the order. Hader and Jeffress can either combine for a deadly combination for the last four innings or use their long outings to allow the other one to rest up for the next game.

Entering play May 15, Jeffress and Hader have been the most valuable relievers in baseball by Win Probability Added, with marks of plus-2.25 and plus-2.06, respectively. This isn’t to say they are the best bullpen duo in baseball, but I think it’s fair to say there haven’t been any two pitchers who have been more important to their team’s successes thus far in 2018. For reference, Hader and Jeffress’ combined plus-4.31 WPA is roughly the equivalent of the league’s best hitter (Mookie Betts, plus-2.12) and the league’s best starter (Max Scherzer, plus-2.25) combined.

I don’t expect the fireman role to become common, because pitchers like Hader aren’t common. His fastball averages 94 mph and comes in at a nearly impossible angle. His slider is absolute hell on left-handers and has enough break to fool even the right-handed batters who can see it out of his hand from the beginning. Perhaps most importantly, despite the sweeping movement on that slider, he can throw it in the zone on command. There aren’t too many pitchers in baseball who can do that, and most who can are rotation aces or multi-million dollar closers who have spent years grooming themselves for single-inning roles.

But how many promising starting pitchers have we seen fail to ever figure out the third time through the order? How many have spent years flashing promising stuff but failing to put it all together? Many organizations have either wasted talents trying to force them to fit a role in which they don’t belong or have constrained them to single-inning roles that fail to maximize their full potential. Hader is proving there is another option for these talents who don’t seem to fit the game’s standard roles.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

It has been quite the confluence of events to make Josh Hader possible. He needed to land on the right team, with a progressive GM and a manager willing and able to make the calculations necessary to work with the moving parts of a non-traditional bullpen. It required enough starters on hand that the Brewers didn’t feel compelled to groom Hader as a starter to fill a rotation gap. It required relievers like Jeffress and Knebel, who can keep the Brewers in games when Hader is recovering from his longer outings. And, most of all, it required Hader’s otherworldly talent and hard work to get to the majors and develop the pitches that allow him to fit this role so well.

Hader might yet have a future in the starting rotation. He is on pace for about 100 innings in 2018 and could end up anywhere between 100 and 120 if he stays healthy. He will still be just 25 after this season, and perhaps after a full season of work out of the bullpen, the Brewers will feel he’s ready to stretch out and join the rotation. Hader’s role thus far is very similar to the one David Price served early in his Rays career before transitioning to the starting rotation, and there’s lots of time for Hader to adapt and grow into a different role.

But Hader has had control problems as a starter. It’s much harder to deal with the runners he puts on base when he can’t reach back and dial up a high-90s fastball on command, something he can do as a reliever but would be unfeasible on a regular basis if he needs to last 100 or even 80 pitches. He has, however, shown the endurance to be as nasty as he is on pitch 10 on pitch 30 or 40, and that means Hader can get through the lineup one time if absolutely necessary, as he showed in that amazing eight-strikeout save against the Reds.

It’s entirely possible this may be the most valuable role Hader can fill with his specific set of skills, and if Hader maintains anything close to this level of performance for the rest of the year, it’ll be awfully hard to convince me it’s a good idea to risk losing such a talented reliever to a switch to the rotation.

I hope the Hader experiment won’t be a one-off. I believe a diversity of roles in baseball allows many more talents to emerge than otherwise would be possible, and it allows those who might be mediocre or merely good in a prescribed role to truly thrive and be the best players they can be.

The closer’s role has become a crutch for managers to justify their decision-making against second guesses. It works for some pitchers, but it’s hardly the universally dominant strategy it has been treated as by the game’s leadership for decades. Some teams and managers are slowly but surely breaking the mold, though, and the different strategies that are appearing make for both better baseball and more interesting baseball. That’s a hard combination to beat.

Jack Moore's work can be seen at VICE Sports and anywhere else you're willing to pay him to write. Buy his e-book.
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Yehoshua Friedman
5 years ago

Not only can the fireman come back, the role of starter may go. A progressive team may soon find the day it can divide up the work evenly among the whole pitching staff and never have the batters get anywhere close to seeing too much of one pitcher in the game. Then, of course, the win stat will have to be either dropped or redefined.

5 years ago

I don’t think that will be the case. Generally, starters are still most teams best pitchers, and pitch a lot more of quality innings, and are much better facing guys 2 times (above average starters 3, aces 4 times) than most relievers are facing them one time. You generally don’t want your worst pitcher throwing as many innings as your best one. Furthermore, rosters are not expanding anytime soon.

5 years ago
Reply to  Takiar

You’re underestimating the times-through-the-order penalty.

2017 stats:
SP 2nd time facing opponent: .779 OPS allowed
RP 1st time facing opponent: .720 OPS allowed

There are probably fewer than 20 starters in the league whose second time through the order I’d prefer to an average reliever.

5 years ago

As I am sure you have been made aware, the Gomez trades predated David Stearns. Doug Melvin made them. It is also might be worthwhile to say the Astros trade included Mike Fiers, whereas the Mets trade was Gomez only. That accounts for some of the distance between the two returns.

5 years ago

5.2 RA9 WAR for Hernandez in 1984

5 years ago
Reply to  scotman144

That 5.2 RA9 WAR for Hernandez in 1984 is 8th best RA9 WAR total all time for a season of 100-150 innings with no starts made.

Gossage in ’75 and ’77 put up 7.4 and 7.1 RA9 WAR in 141.2 and 133 innings respectively

Jim Kern (who also pitched before my time but that I had never heard of before reading this article / doing this quick bit of research) put up 7.5 RA9 WAR in 143 IP in 1979

Great Read!

jim fetterolf
5 years ago

You might have mentioned Dan Quisenberry’s 1983 season of 139 innings, 45 saves, and a 1.94 ERA and 5.5rW. 210 ERA+ and a .928 whip.

Brian Schwartz
5 years ago

Mariano Rivera is known as a closer but he had this same fireman role in 1996, pitching 108 innings over 61 games with well over a strikeout an inning. He probably would have been even more valuable had he stayed in that role throughout his career.