OOTP Brewers: What the Hader?on August 18, 2020 at 6:10 pm

OOTP Brewers: What the Hader?

Off in the land of Out Of The Park Baseball 21, the doldrums of August have set in. The trade deadline is over — new acquisitions Brandon Belt and Jeff Samardzija are hardly the most exciting additions imaginable, but they’ve both given the team what we need, competent production at two weak points. Meanwhile, the Pittsburgh Pirates maintain a shaky grasp on first place; they’re two games ahead of the Brewers now, with every other team in the division at least 10 games in our wake.

Normally, the big news of the week would be Christian Yelich‘s imminent return. A month and a half without an MVP candidate was a long road, but the team has done admirably, grinding out an 18-18 record. Take this year’s Brewers team and subtract Yelich, and a .500 clip would be hard to achieve. With Yelich in the fold by this weekend (assuming rehab goes smoothly), the division is ours for the taking again.

Unfortunately, “best player returns” doesn’t make for interesting reading. Did you know that Yelich is good? I did, and I bet you did too. Luckily, there’s a bigger mystery to dive into. While Yelich is the team’s best player, Josh Hader has the highest OOTP rating on the team, thanks to a setting that rates every player relative to their positional peers. On the 20-80 scale, he’s an 80 reliever, thanks to his unbelievable stuff grade:

Again, this scale goes from 20 to 80. All of his pitches are 80s, and they combine to be greater than the sum of their parts. Those movement and control ratings, on the other hand? Those govern home run rate and walk rate, and they’re both pretty much average. This reflects real-life Hader quite well.

One thing that doesn’t reflect real-life Hader well: his production so far this year. The strikeout numbers are there, just like normal: a 38.6% strikeout rate is down slightly for him, but still within the range of reasonable outcomes. His walk rate is a touch high at 10.9%, but again: it’s Hader, and he’s going to walk a few guys. That’s where the similarities end, though. In his major league career before 2020, Hader allowed 28 home runs in 204.2 innings. In this simulation of 2020, he’s allowed 18 in 66. Oops!

18 home runs is preposterous. That comes out to 2.5 HR/9, a number that not even 2019 Edwin Diaz surpassed — it would be the second-highest rate for a qualifying reliever in the 21st century, behind only Joel Peralta in 2008. Or, it would be if not for fellow Brewer Devin Williams, who is allowing 2.7 HR/9 and has already thrown 47.1 innings. The power arms in the bullpen are not doing great, it’s safe to say:

What do those home run numbers mean for Hader? On the year, he’s allowed 42 earned runs, good for a 5.73 ERA. His FIP stands at a nearly-as-bad 5.34. Again, think 2019 Diaz, because that’s what an elite reliever turning in a 5-handle ERA looks like, and even he had a FIP in the fours.

Luckily, Hader’s meltdowns haven’t impacted the team yet. He’s been masterful, to the extent that you can be masterful with an ERA approaching six, at giving up runs in blowouts and shutting down the opposition in close games. He leads the Brewers pitching staff in WPA with 1.1. I wrote about this divergence earlier this year, and it’s somehow gotten worse since then.

Normally, I don’t think there would be much to say here: Hader is an 80 out of 80 as a reliever, which means he should keep his stopper role, parachuting in when the team needs high-leverage innings. He and Corey Knebel form a dynamic late-inning duo, one most of the teams in baseball would be jealous of, results notwithstanding.

At some point, however, we have to manage this team like real life. A closer with a 5.73 ERA in the middle of August is pretty much unheard of, because someone else would have taken over the role. So far, Hader’s struggles haven’t bitten the team, but this late in the season, it’s probably futile to hope he’ll suddenly figure out how to stop giving up home runs. There’s also a decent chance his talent has changed; the game simulates random changes in player ability, and sometimes you learn about them via those players’ performance. This sure feels like one of those times.

We have a few options. First, we could install Knebel as the lone stopper, giving him all the highest-leverage outings and picking up the pieces with the second tier of our bullpen, which would now comprise Brent Suter, Freddy Peralta, and Hader. Second, we could install Suter in Hader’s place. As another lefty, he’d preserve our platoon stopper setup, giving us the handedness edge in every situation. One problem: he’s homer-prone himself, with the same movement grade as Hader, though he makes up for it with pinpoint control.

If we want to try something more exotic, we could give the second stopper role to Peralta. He’s been in the rotation for a decent part of the year, but his stuff plays up out of the bullpen, and he’s moved there to shore up relief innings as well as give the team one extra flame throwing arm in a potential playoff run. Every single one of his ratings is worse than Hader’s according to our scouts, but hey, scouts have been wrong before.

Last but not least, we could continue to ignore results and leave Hader in the role. He’s been awful — really, truly awful. We can’t afford any more blowups in our pursuit of the Pirates, and Hader melted down en route to a loss as recently as this past Saturday, giving up three runs in an inning of work to cede a game to the basement-dwelling Cardinals. So be it. He’s still likely our best reliever, and almost certainly one of our best two relievers. We could look through the carnage and leave him in there, hoping for better days.

What will it be, fellow virtual managers?

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I’ll put my thumb on the scale a bit by telling you my vote: I voted to leave Hader in the role. It’s not the most realistic option, sure, but I’d like to think that if I were a manager I’d stick with talent in this situation, and I’d certainly want the team I was rooting for to keep playing the best player, terrible results and all.

Lastly, a programming note for the OOTP Brewers series. For this week, at least, I’m skipping the normal FanGraphs Live segment on the team. With real baseball back and the Trade Value series in full swing, spending an hour or two discussing how bad Hader has been feels a bit extraneous. In two weeks’ time, there will be more to discuss: September call-ups, Yelich’s return, and a playoff race with less than a month to go in the season. That feels like an appropriate time to talk strategy. See you then!

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