Milwaukee Brewers would be nuts to trade closer Josh Hader

Josh Hader has been better than ever in 2020, so why are the Brewers in trade talks for him?

In a season that’s been full of darkness for the Milwaukee Brewers, Josh Hader stands out as the lone shining light.

It would’ve been difficult for the left-hander to improve upon his 2018 and 2019 seasons. Hader led all relievers in that span with 15.9 strikeouts per nine innings and was eighth with a 2.38 ERA among pitchers with at least 100 innings. Two of the three best seasons in MLB history in K/9 (min. 70 innings) belong to Hader . It was a run of dominance that established Hader has one of the best relief pitchers in baseball. But, somehow, he’s managed to be even better this season.

Hader has yet to allow a hit in 9.1 innings this season over nine appearances. That’s the longest hitless streak to start a season since Justin Wilson of the Tigers in 2017 and the sixth-longest in history; Brad Clontz holds the record, pitching 11.2 hitless innings for the Dodgers in 1998. But long runs of not allowing a hit are nothing new to Hader. He had a streak of 11.1 innings last year.

Where Hader struggled with the past two seasons is giving up the home run. Of his 41 hits allowed in 2019, 15 of them were home runs. He’s dramatically changed that this year. His percentage of hard-hit balls has declined, from 42 percent a year ago to 26.7 percent this season. He’s given up just one barreled ball in 15 attempts with an average exit velocity of 83.7, down from 90.4 in 2019.

His secret is a reduced dependence on his fastball. Hader is throwing his fastball less this season and relying more on his sharp breaking slider. His fastball usage has declined from 84.3 percent in 2019 to 65.3 percent in 2020. At the same time, his slider usage is up to 34.7 percent from 15.4 percent last year. Opponents are swinging at the pitch and failing to make contact nearly half of the time so far this season.

Hader already has seven saves this season and has yet to surrender a run. He’s proven to be as dependable as a closer could be for the Brewers. So it came as a surprise when Robert Murray of The Athletic reported on Friday that the San Diego Padres and other clubs reached out to the Brewers about a possible trade before Monday’s deadline.

The Brewers find themselves in this position because, unlike Hader, the rest of the team has struggled. Christian Yelich, who led the league with a .327 average over the last two seasons and was second in OPS to Mike Trout, is hitting .190. Ryan Braun is hitting just .193. The Brewers are second-last in the Majors in batting average and runs per game, third-last in OPS.

But now is not the time to give up hope. At 13-17, the Brewers are still just two games behind the St. Louis Cardinals for second in the NL Central and an automatic playoff berth. September is when the club tends to play their best; the Brewers are a combined 39-14 over the final month of the season the past two years, both of which ended with a spot in the postseason. Yelich is bound to return to form eventually. And Hader remains under team control for another three seasons beyond 2020.

Trading their franchise closer would be a desperation move by the Brewers. Even in an abbreviated season, though, there is still time for the club to reverse their fortunes and get back to being the team that played into October each of the past two years.

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