In what may have been the most surprising trade ahead of the August 2 deadline, the Brewers and Padres swapped closers on August 1 as part of a five-player deal, with four-time All-Star Josh Hader heading to San Diego and 2021 All-Star Taylor Rogers and three other players going to Milwaukee. But a trade that was supposed to improve both contenders while making some additional sense in terms of rosters and payrolls has thus far failed to pan out for either team, and at this point both clubs find themselves scrambling for the National League’s last playoff spot.
The full deal sent the 28-year-old Hader to the Padres in exchange for the 31-year-old Rogers as well as 30-year-old righty Dinelson Lamet and a pair of 23-year-old prospects, lefty Robert Gasser and outfielder Esteury Ruiz. Lamet didn’t even suit up for the Brewers, who designated him for assignment on August 5; he was claimed by the Rockies and at this writing has made eight appearances for them. Meanwhile, the Brewers sent Ruiz, who had been on the Padres’ major league roster, back to Triple-A and promoted Gasser from High-A to Double-A.
While the trade appeared puzzling on the surface, the Brewers seemed motivated to make the move because they perceived that they had a deep enough bullpen to withstand the loss of the increasingly expensive Hader, who’s making $11 million this year and could make around $15 million in his final year of arbitration. Even if Rogers didn’t wind up working the ninth inning, they believed that the extra goodies they were receiving from the Padres would help them in the long run. The Padres made the trade because they felt they needed an elite closer for a playoff push that they hoped would include a revamped roster, not only with Fernando Tatis Jr. after he rehabbed from a wrist injury but also other significant fortifications that were in the works; they landed Juan Soto and Josh Bell from the Nationals but might have turned to Willson Contreras had that massive blockbuster not materialized.
As I noted at the time, both Hader and Rogers had generally pitched well during the season’s first three months but had struggled during July. Those struggles have largely continued into August, though not to the same degree:
Josh Hader and Taylor Rogers: Two Bad Months
At the time of the trade, the Brewers were 57-45, three games ahead of the Cardinals (54-48) in the NL Central race, and with the league’s fourth-best record behind the Dodgers (68-33), Mets (64-37) and Braves (62-41). They’ve gone 11-14 since. While Rogers hasn’t blown a save, he’s only had one save opportunity, and he did take a loss against the Cardinals after entering a 2-2 tie in the eighth inning on August 14. The rest of the bullpen has taken on a rather disheveled look, as his fellow relievers have blown eight saves, going 1-5 in those games (twice they doubled up, both in extra-inning games), with Devin Williams successfully shutting the door three times and deadline acquisition Matt Bush twice. Since the trade, their bullpen has a 3.81 ERA (sixth in the NL) and a 4.29 FIP (13th). As for their Playoff Odds [descending whistle of falling object]:
Brewers Change in Playoff Odds
|Through July 31||57||45||.559||+3||80.3%||3.9%||9.4%||89.6%||5.2%|
|Through August 29||68||59||.535||6||9.1%||0.0%||42.1%||51.3%||2.2%|
I’ll save a closer look at the Brewers’ bullpen for another day, however; it’s the Padres and Hader that I’ll focus on here. At the time of the trade, they were 57-46, a distant 12 games behind the Dodgers but a game and a half ahead of the Phillies (55-47) for the second Wild Card spot and 2.5 ahead of the Cardinals, the top team on the outside looking in at the playoff picture.
Padres Change in Playoff Odds
|Through July 31||57||46||.553||12||1.1%||1.0%||80.2%||81.2%||4.3%|
|Through August 29||71||59||.546||19.5||0.0%||0.0%||67.6%||67.6%||4.7%|
The Padres are now in the last Wild Card position, 1.5 games behind the Phillies (72-57) and 1.5 ahead of the Brewers. So at least they’ve got that going for them.
Hader’s Padres tenure began innocuously enough, with a scoreless ninth inning against the Rockies in the nightcap of their August 2 doubleheader; he entered with a tie score, and notched the win when Trent Grisham hit a walk-off homer. He threw a scoreless ninth with two strikeouts in a losing cause against the Giants on August 8, but the next night had his first post-trade meltdown. Entering with a 4-1 ninth-inning lead, he retired just two of seven Giants he faced while giving up a single, hitting a batter, and walking three, two of which forced in runs; if not for a great catch by Jurickson Profar that held Evan Longoria to a sacrifice fly instead of a bases-clearing hit, the damage would have been even worse, but as it was, manager Bob Melvin had to go get Hader after 37 pitches. After Tim Hill extricated the Padres with a strikeout, in the bottom of the ninth Manny Machado took Hader off the hook with a three-run homer off Tyler Rogers, Taylor’s twin brother.
Melvin didn’t call Hader’s number again until August 18, when he relieved Yu Darvish with two on and one out in a tie game in the ninth inning against the Nationals. Darvish had pitched brilliantly but couldn’t finish the complete game. Nor could I, in attendance at Petco Park with my wife, father, and nearly six-year-old daughter, the last of whom had begun turning into a grouchy pumpkin around the seventh-inning stretch. I watched from the distant concourse in left field as Hader’s seventh pitch hit ex-Padre Luke Voit to load the bases; he then walked Nelson Cruz on four pitches to force in a run, gave up another on a sacrifice fly, and then allowed a single to CJ Abrams to load the bases again before retiring Lane Thomas. The Padres didn’t score in their half, but it was Darvish who took the loss, not Hader.
Hader faced the Nationals again the next night, and it went even worse. Entering a tie game with a clean slate in the top of the ninth, he didn’t retire a batter, yielding a walk, a single — via which Victor Robles scored from first base after Hader threw Thomas’ dribbler into right field — and a two-run homer by Alex Call over the course of 12 pitches, then getting the hook. Again, the Padres lost.
The next day, Melvin told reporters that Hader would get “a little break” from closing and would work on fixing his mechanics on the side and in low-leverage appearances while the manager used a closer by committee. He’s pitched just twice since, throwing a scoreless eighth inning against the Guardians on August 24, when the Padres trailed 7-0, and then getting tattooed for six runs by the Royals on Sunday. With the Padres trailing 9-6, he entered and gave up a first-pitch single to Salvador Perez, then a double, walk, two-run double, and RBI single. He struck out Nicky Lopez, then issued another walk and a two-run single by Michael A. Taylor. With the score now 14-6 and his pitch count at 34, Wil Myers relieved Hader and allowed a sacrifice fly by Bobby Witt Jr. but managed to keep the Royals from scoring further.
That’s what a 23.14 ERA (and a .500/.600/.708 line by the 35 opposing hitters Hader has faced) looks like. Not only is it not pretty, it’s downright uncomfortable to watch.
“It’s hard,” Melvin said after Hader’s Royal shellacking. “Certainly hard for him. It looks like hitters are getting a good look. You aren’t seeing the swings and misses that you normally do, both with the heater and breaking ball.”
As I noted at the time of the trade, most of the damage done against Hader was via his sinker, which had actually increased in velocity relative to last season but was coming from a higher arm slot and getting less movement (an observation previously made by Sports Info Solution’s Dominick Ricotta):
Josh Hader’s Sinker
|Year||Velo||Drop (in)||Break (in)||V Rel (in)||H Rel (in)||AVG||SLG||wOBA||xwOBA|
SOURCE: Baseball Savant
The trends have largely continued, in that Hader’s vertical release point, while lower than in July, is still higher than normal and his horizontal release point closer to the plate, yielding less run on the pitch and less deception.
A week after the trade, before Hader’s meltdown against the Giants, Baseball Prospectus‘ Michael Ajeto went even further in depth regarding Hader’s release point, his vertical approach angle, and the orientation of his wrist when throwing. His whole analysis is worth a read, but the long and short of it is that where the combination of Hader’s release point for his sinker and the pitch’s flatness made it exceptionally effective, the pitch now enters the strike zone at a slightly steeper angle, with a less deceptive spin. According to Ajeto, by keeping his wrist oriented vertically, Hader was able to “create a vertical spin profile from a horizontally-oriented release… much like seam-shifted wake, that’s what makes Hader deceptive: he’s creating pitch movement that’s incongruent from what you’d expect from his arm slot.”
But no longer:
Hader still releases the ball with his wrist orientated vertically, which means his spin tilt, or spin direction, has remained about the same. But now that his arm slot has started to rise… his expected spin direction from his release point has moved from about 9:30 to 10:30 on a clock face, which has begun to converge with his actual spin direction of 11:00. It’s clear that his sinker has become less deceptive because of this, so it’s not getting on hitters as well as it used to.
Whereas Hader had produced a 31.1% whiff rate with the pitch through July, it was just 23.1% for that month, and down to 21.7% in August. Woof.
Baseball Prospectus‘ Robert Orr suggested that an injury could be the cause of Hader’s altered release point, and noticed an effort to correct it that just hasn’t stuck (click through to the individual graphs):
His release point-uniquely critical for him-has been steadily creeping up. In Aug it’s lowered again, suggesting somebody noticed and he’s trying to get back to it. But it was probably caused by an injury in the 1st place, so now he can’t command anything bc of pain/discomfort https://t.co/ZYQEESyE5I pic.twitter.com/7SDzsqk5RC
— Robert Orr (@NotTheBobbyOrr) August 29, 2022
Hader’s mechanical problems may be connected to physical issues, though he hasn’t gone on the injured list this season. And while he left the Brewers briefly in late May due to his wife Maria’s pregnancy complications and then declined a trip to the All-Star Game in order to spend time with her and their son Lucas Alexander (born June 15), on Monday Maria shot down a rumor spread by MLB Network that the baby was having health issues.
Anyway, since Hader was deposed from the closer role, the Padres have gotten three saves from Nick Martinez and one from Luis García, with Melvin saying on Monday that for now, the former is his preferred closer. He also planned to use Hader more, not less, saying, “I think it’s maybe a little bit more regular work for him. That may be important.”
For as badly as Hader has pitched, the rest of the bullpen has largely picked him up. Through Monday, the team had the NL’s second-lowest bullpen ERA (2.91) and the lowest FIP (3.13) for August; by comparison, they ended July with a 3.94 ERA (seventh) and 3.68 FIP (third). Martinez has thrown 15 scoreless innings this month while posting a 2.06 FIP, and he’s not the only one putting up zeroes; Adrian Morejon (13.2 IP, 2.25 FIP), Steven Wilson (10 IP, 3.03 FIP), and Hill (7.2 IP, 2.60 FIP) haven’t allowed a run, either, while Robert Suarez had allowed just one run in 10.1 innings before giving up three to the Giants on Monday night. Alas, not all of those zeroes came in high-leverage innings, and those are, after all, small samples.
The bigger problem for the Padres hasn’t been their bullpen but a rotation that has meandered around league average, with a 3.87 ERA and 3.87 FIP overall, and marks of 4.67 (119 ERA-) and 4.11 (103 FIP-) in August, with Darvish, Joe Musgrove, and Mike Clevinger all mediocre, and Sean Manaea worse; only Blake Snell has an ERA and FIP better than the rotation’s overall marks. The offense, at least, is on the upswing with Soto, hitting for a 114 wRC+ (.252/.341/.405) in August compared to a middling 101 wRC+ (.242/.321/.382) overall.
Whether the Padres understood the extent of Hader’s delivery issues or not at the time of the trade, they’re now charged with fixing him, something they’ve had mixed success with when it comes to other acquisitions. Darvish has been much better since arriving from the Cubs, for example, but Snell not so much, the past four weeks notwithstanding. Still, 4.2 ugly innings is just 4.2 innings, and there’s ample time for the story of Hader and the Padres — who, after all, still occupy a playoff position — to take a happier turn.