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What to Expect from Josh Hader on the Astros

Josh Hader pitching for the San Diego Padres ;CC by license 2.0

The Houston Astros rang in the new year with what could end up being one of the biggest free-agent signings in the club’s history if all goes to plan. Astros GM Dana Brown finally made some noise in what had been an uncharacteristically quiet offseason, especially for a team who finished just 1 win shy of making their 3rd straight fall classic, by bringing back star reliever Josh Hader. Wait, what? Bringing back? Well, sort of. While it won’t get you any squares on the immaculate grid, it is interesting to note that Hader was, at one point, playing alongside Lance McCullers Jr, Carlos Correa, and Teoscar Hernandez for Astros High-A affiliate Lancaster. If you’re into trade drama and “where are they now’s”, it only gets better from here. Hader was then traded from the Astros to the Brewers in 2015 for Carlos Gomez and HOF whistleblower, Mike Fiers. So not only did Houston give away a future 5x All-Star and 3x Reliever of the year in Hader, but in return they got the man who caused the firing of a World Series winning manager and GM as well as the hatred of all other 29 franchises and their fans. Returning to the subject of this article, Hader did reveal in his post-signing press conference that he views his signing with Houston as a “full-circle moment”, having also met his wife while pitching in the Astros farm system. So all’s well that ends well I guess.

But forget all of the emotion and storytelling. Is this guy gonna win ball games or not?! Well in a bullpen that recently saw a season-ending injury to Kendall Graveman as well as the losses of Hector Neris and Phil Maton to free agency, there is a massive need for innings and durability from the arms Houston still has. Likely intentionally, the Astros have gotten in Hader a guy who has been injured once in his career, and that injury was COVID-19, so he certainly should have a large workload ahead of him this season. Hader has hovered around the 50-60 inning mark the last few seasons which would’ve put him near the top of the Astros bullpen last year if you take away the innings pitched by the aforementioned departed Neris   (68 IP) and Maton (66.1 IP). However this still leaves a considerable 70-inning hole left behind even with the signing of Hader, so we could see Hader shift into more of a longer reliever role like in his early years with the Brewers, and Ryan Pressly, Bryan Abreu, and Rafael Montero juggle the closing and setup roles, or vice versa.

Because Hader is such a renowned talent on the mound, it would be easy to simply say he’ll save 30 games and post an ERA around 2.00 that could approach 1.00 if he’s as effective as last season. Still, I work in analytics, and it’s just not in my blood to use stats from 1985 to describe an arm that deserves a much more in-depth analysis. We’ll start by depicting the environment Hader performs the best in and follow that up with numbers to reflect his production in that environment. Last season, Hader pitched in 56.1 innings across 61 appearances and never pitched more than one inning in a game. When he came into games, Hader was under 74.5% more pressure than average, indicated by his Average Leverage Index (aLI) of 1.745, which ranked 25th among late-game relievers last year. Hader also almost always came in during the 9th inning, with nobody on, and his team ahead, and 20% of the batters he faced were left-handed which is slightly less than the MLB average of 25%. Based on these tallies courtesy of Baseball Reference, we see that Hader, while he usually faced a high probability of giving up runs, also almost always started the 9th inning, allowing us to infer that the pressure he faced was almost always caused by self-induced factors other than the score of the game he was entering. Now let’s see if his performance numbers back that up.

Sure enough, Hader was near the bottom of the league in BB% with a 13% rate, the 11th worst for all qualified relievers. Walks are a clear dark spot for Hader, but his ability to go out of the zone effectively led to a 33% chase rate last year, so the walks seem to be a fair trade-off for him. On the other hand, Hader led the league last year in xBA, with only 15.7% of his batted balls expected to land for a hit. A big part of this can be attributed to his ability to generate weak contact. Hader saw an average exit velocity of 87 MPH on pitches of his that were hit, which is also in the 87th percentile for the league. He also causes hitters to miss pitches at a rate of about 33%, which is also near the top of the league. Based on this, we can look at Hader as a deceptive arm with a knack for keeping hitters off balance, further reflected by his average time to the plate which was a quick 15.6 seconds, and his incredible ability to hide the ball throughout his delivery.

After a thorough analysis of Hader’s strengths and weaknesses, I see no need to expect anything different from the excellence he has shown in previous years. His one lackluster season in 2022 had a lot to do with an increase in strike% which hurt his ability to generate chases and soft contact. If used correctly and not stretched into a role requiring too much of a volume increase, he should stay healthy and once again dominate out of an Astros bullpen that will need him badly.


Baseball Reference




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