LOS ANGELES — The recipe for Josh Hader’s dominance is simple: a 6-3, 185-pound frame with freakish athletic ability, including a left arm that can fling mid-90s fastballs (and low-80s sliders), and a pinch of information from the Brewers’ front office that helps Craig Counsell decide when to use him against which batters.
And then there is the not-so-secret ingredient: plenty of rest. Of Hader’s 55 relief appearances in the regular season, he pitched on back-to-back days only five times, most recently in late August.
When a team has a reliever as good as Hader — 2.43 ERA, 0.81 WHIP, 143 strikeouts in 81 1/3 innings — then, sure, it’s tempting to use him as often as possible, Counsell said. But it’s also not.
“The thing is, part of being effective is having rest. That’s part of what creates their effectiveness,” Counsell said. “Anytime the reliever is on a roll, you’re always tempted, teams are always tempted by it. But you’ve got to keep it structured so that you have them for the long haul.”
The long-haul payoff is now: the playoffs. And Hader’s usage has taken center stage as the Brewers took a 2-1 lead in the best-of-seven NLCS against the Dodgers into Tuesday’s Game 4. Has Milwaukee used him too much? Not enough? Too many innings, but not enough games?
Counsell opened the series by deploying Hader — his relief ace, fireman, whatever you want to call that Andrew Miller-type role — aggressively in Game 1, using him for three innings, matching his season high, in a Milwaukee win. But that wiped him out for Game 2 (a Dodgers’ win when the Brewers’ bullpen blew a late lead) leading into a series off day Sunday.
With the Brewers up by four late in Game 3, Hader entered, but only for two outs (eight pitches). The brevity kept alive the possibility of him pitching in Game 4, and that possibility was important.
Hader’s availability is a threat that looms over the Dodgers — over lineup decisions, over pinch hitters, over how they approach the late innings, especially when the Brewers have a small lead.
“We’re aware of where he’s at,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. When Hader isn’t available, it makes Roberts’ job much simpler.
When you know you have a guy like Hader throw three innings and he was going to be down [in Game 2, for example], for me there is just no cost to what has now been called a line change for our [lineup],” Roberts said after Hader’s Game 1 masterpiece. “So to insert these guys and not have to worry about him, yeah, it made it a lot easier.”
Hader, 24, was a rookie in 2017 and is under team control through 2023 — a valuable asset for Milwaukee, particularly in an era when deep bullpens and shut-down, multi-inning relievers are critical pieces of a championship-caliber roster. And because the Brewers prefer not to use Hader too frequently, they squeeze more outs from him when he does pitch. He went more than one inning in 33 of 55 games in the regular season.
“It feels like a good recipe if we have him for two innings,” Counsell said.
That strategy also comes with a limit, such as when Hader racked up 18 innings in 11 games in March/April. Counsell knew that was unsustainable and had to reel it in. Hader tossed 15 innings (eight games) in May and didn’t pass that mark in any month the rest of the year — with an eye toward the all-important long haul.
“The original idea around Josh was how can we use him for more innings and bigger innings and more of them?” Counsell said. “And how can we match that to how he recovers as a player and a pitcher? And so that’s how we kind of got there with this.”