MILWAUKEE — Josh Hader’s dominant performance a year ago made him one of the game’s most feared pitchers.
And nearing the home stretch of the 2019 season, his numbers aren’t too much different: his 16.9 strikeout rate is actually higher than it was in 2018 (15.8); his 0.795 WHIP is slightly lower than the 0.811 mark he posted last season; and his walk rate is down from 3.3 to 2.4.
One number, though, that has many scratching their heads is Hader’s home runs: After giving up 13 in 129 innings during his first two seasons, Hader has allowed 12 in 55⅓ innings in 2019, including three in his past five appearances.
Part of the issue stems from Hader’s pitch selection. He’s always been a fastball-heavy pitcher but has taken that to another level in 2019, throwing it 86.9% of the time, compared to 79.1% a year ago, while going with his slider just 12.7% of the time, down from 20.6% in 2018.
Opposing batters know the fastball is coming so they’ve been sitting back and waiting for it. And even though Hader’s fastball averages out at 95.8 mph, location is everything — especially when a batter is looking for a particular pitch.
“When they’re ready for a fastball and you miss your location anywhere over the plate, these guys are going to do damage to it,” Hader said. “They know roughly what the speed is going to look like. Now, it’s just going down to seeing the ball over the plate to where they can do damage to it. I think it’s really, for me, that I focus on executing the pitch moreso than anything.”
After giving up a tying home run to Texas’ Elvis Andrus in the ninth inning Friday night, Hader was asked about throwing more sliders — a pitch that can wreak havoc on left-handed hitters.
“It’s definitely something I’ve been working on getting in, but then again, the fastball sometimes plays really well,” he said. “You can’t really be like, ‘What if I threw my second best pitch right there?’ What if that gets hit out?’ Then it’s like, ‘Oh, why didn’t you throw the fastball?’
“It’s always that question of ‘Why didn’t you throw this?’ or pitch selection, but definitely trying to throw in those secondaries to play off the fastball. At the end of the day, I’m going to stick to my strengths. It’s what got me here. It’s what I’m going to continue to improve and work on.”
Hader’s role has changed slightly this season, too. Milwaukee’s bullpen plan was shaken up when Corey Knebel was lost to a season-ending injury during spring training. Jeremy Jeffress, who rounded out the “three-headed monster” of relievers, hasn’t been nearly as effectiveas he was a year ago, leaving manager Craig Counsell little choice but to use Hader in the closer’s role, often in a multi-inning capacity.
As a result, Hader has already made 43 appearances. Last season, he didn’t make his 43rd appearance until Aug. 26 — though he did work his 55th inning on Aug. 5.
Counsell has been vigilant about how he uses Hader, who pitched in consecutive games just six times this season and worked multiple innings in 20 appearances. Two weeks ago, when Counsell turned to Hader in all three games against the Oakland A’s, it marked the first time this season Hader had worked three straight games. And while the final outing ended with a walk-off home run, Hader denied fatigue or workload has been an issue and has no plans to change his routine.
“I really focus on doing whatever I can to make sure my body feels 100%,” Hader said. “Make sure that I continue to do my routine, keep my body healthy and be prepared each and every day for whatever is thrown at us. The goal is to be prepared.”
His recent struggles aside, Hader still has the confidence of his teammates, who are fully aware of the work he’s done to protect slim leads and have tried to return the favor by bailing him during this rough patch.
“He’s done so much for us. He’s pitched so many innings for us and carried the load,” veteran starter Gio Gonzalez said. “He’s our guy no matter what. We need him. As long as he keeps us in the game, he gives us a shot to win every time he pitches.”
The Brewers will open their 2020 season — the 50th in franchise history — on Thursday, March 26, against the Chicago Cubs at Miller Park, according to the schedule announced by MLB on Monday.
The teams will take the next day off then wrap up their three-game series over the weekend, with the St. Louis Cardinals coming to Milwaukee that Monday to close out the season-opening homestand.
A 10-day swing through New York, Pittsburgh and Colorado in late April marks Milwaukee’s longest trip of the season while their longest homestand of the year comes in May against the Yankees, Cubs and Giants.
The Brewers and Cubs will close out their season series earlier than in years past with a three-game set Aug. 7-9 at Miller Park.
Along with the annual home-and-home series with the Minnesota Twins, the Brewers will face the AL East in interleague play. The Yankees (May 19-21), Blue Jays (June 22-24) and Rays (July 7-8) will visit while the Brewers will visit Tampa Bay May 30-31, Boston June 5-7 and Baltimore Sept. 11-13.
Milwaukee wraps up the season with a weeklong trip to St. Louis and San Francisco, finishing against the Giants on Sunday, Sept. 27.