MLB: Why Hitters Can’t hit Brewers’ Reliever Josh Hader’s Fastball

Milwaukee Brewers pitcher Josh Hader might not be a starter, but his fastball is still making him one of the most feared pitchers in baseball. According to Fangraphs, Hader has struck out 50 percent of the batters who have faced him, a feat that would put him third all-time, if he doesn’t move up the list. With such an effective pitch, one would think that hitters would be able to plan for it or stop it, but that hasn’t been the case. 

With such a perplexing pitch, it makes sense to explore exactly why Hader has appeared to crack some sort of pitching code. 

The pitch Josh Hader relies on

The pitch, according to FiveThirtyEight, isn’t something that Josh Hader keeps in his back pocket and unleashes at a hitter whom he has caught slipping. He throws it 88.6 percent of the time. The four-seam fastball is among the most common pitches that a single pitcher throws in Major League Baseball. The interesting part of it is that the pitch is not outrageously fast.

In fact, according to Fangraphs, it is only the 66th fastest fastball in the MLB at 95.9 mph. Even the spin on the ball isn’t one that would typically result in confusing batters, as Hader throws with less spin than even the average pitcher throws. So, why is it so stifling for offenses to figure out?

Despite the previous stats indicating that the pitch may not appear as effective as its results indicate, batters cannot hit off of Josh Hader. Forty-four percent of swings on his four-seam fastball result in misses, and another 40% result in a foul. Just 16 percent of hits off of Hader’s signature pitch are playable, and opponents are batting .132 against it. 

Why can’t they hit it?

Brewers reliever Josh Hader relies on his fastball and hitters know it, but they still can't put the ball on the ball.
Hader’s motion and arm angle throw off hitters. | Quinn Harris/Getty Images

The pitch seems like an anomaly. Nothing seems to explain it as far as standard analytics go, yet it is obviously something that is a real problem for players. Los Angeles Dodgers slugger Max Muncy, who was 0-for-5 with four strikeouts against Hader as of July 31, 2019, said that the batter’s view of the pitch serves as something of an optical illusion, appearing to be released underneath his armpit. 

“When he has a high-spin fastball from that angle,” Muncy said. “It really does look like it’s coming from the ground up, and then he’s throwing 97, 98, so it’s just very, very hard to get on top of that fastball.”

The angle seems to be something that cannot be properly analyzed by the hitter, as it’s already been established that there is less-than-average spin on Hader’s fastball. Instead of spin, however, Hader’s low arm slot can explain the ball’s motion. His release gives a similar effect as a high-spin fastball, but with a different motion. 

Vertical movement

Josh Hader releases his pitches at a 147-degree angle with an over-the-top grip from a side-arm slot. The strange motion is a nightmare for batters, even when they know what pitch is coming. It makes the combination of strange motion and timing hard to calculate in the split-second between when Hader releases his pitch and when they are meant to swing at it. 

That deceptive combination is not something that can be explained away by mere numbers. The rail-thin Hader’s thin build stifles the hitter, and ensuing motion does nothing to help that. While Hader is still young, this could be what makes the pitch a nightmare for years to come.

Hader may only be in his third year, but he is making a huge name for himself as a reliever. Time will tell how long he can use his signature pitch the way he does, but until offenses figure it out, he will likely continue throwing it for however long his body allows him to.