“Focusing health-wise -- I don’t think that would be realistic,” Hader said. “The last time I did it was 2019. My saying is, ‘Why fix something that isn’t broken?’ I feel like that’s what we have here. It’s been working.”
“Broken” was an interesting choice of words in this case. Hader says he found out about Williams’ injury along with the rest of the team, in a players-only meeting on Sept. 28 in St. Louis. Williams told teammates he had too much to drink after the Brewers clinched the NL Central title, got angry about something unrelated to baseball and punched a wall, only discovering two days later that he’d fractured his pitching hand.
Williams underwent surgery on Friday and is likely out for the rest the year, though the Brewers didn’t completely rule out the righty for a World Series start, should they get that far. They will begin their championship quest in Game 1 of the National League Division Series against the Braves on Friday afternoon.
Hader was asked whether his reaction to the news included anger toward his teammate.
“I mean, we all make mistakes, man,” Hader said. “We’re all human. Obviously with it happening right before the playoffs and knowing the severity of it, it hurts. But at the end of the day, we all mess up. We can’t expect each other to be perfect.
“And at the end of the day, we can’t change it.”
Or, as fellow reliever Jake Cousins put it, “You can’t replace a guy like that. I think we all have the ‘next guy up’ mentality.’”
Hader pointed to the fact the Brewers used 61 players in 2021, a franchise record. Thirty-eight different players made at least one pitching appearance, including 35 in relief. Now, the Brewers need some relievers to step up to fill the void left by Williams, the 2020 National League Rookie of the Year who was sensational again in ’21, striking out 38.5 percent of the hitters he faced.
Of the 674 Major League pitchers who threw at least 10 innings during the regular season, Williams’ strikeout rate ranked 10th.
Hader ranked first at 45.5 percent.
Hader’s career strikeout rate of 44.4 percent is the highest in Major League history. Craig Kimbrel is next at 41.3 percent, followed by Aroldis Chapman's 41.1 percent. Hader’s consistency has been astounding; he has three of the top 10 single-season strikeout rates in history for pitchers who logged at least 10 innings. Williams’ 53 percent in 2020 is the all-time record.
“I played catch with Hader today, so that was cool,” Cousins said Tuesday night at a Brewers workout. “I figured out why guys don’t hit his fastball.”
In recent years Hader has expanded his repertoire beyond that fastball while learning what he needs to do to stay strong the whole year through. Hader weighed in at 190 pounds recently, at least 10 pounds bulkier than past postseasons.
He is also a different pitcher than in years past. Hader threw his fastball 65.5 percent of the time in 2021, the lowest percentage of his career according to Statcast. His slider usage dropped from 32.3 percent in 2020 to 27.8 percent in ’21 because of the introduction of a changeup after years of tinkering with the offspeed pitch.
It was one more thing for hitters to ponder in the box as Hader, long hair flying, flung pitches their way. Hader had only one blown save, on July 7 at New York, and finished the regular season with 21 consecutive scoreless outings.
“It's really amazing to think that Josh Hader is getting better,” Brewers manager Craig Counsell said back in July after Hader made his third NL All-Star team.
“It was special for me,” Hader said. “I think I learned a lot about myself; I learned a lot about pitching. And I think that’s also coming from the offseason. I’ve been able to really learn my body and my mechanics and fine-tune those to where I can be as perfect as possible. Adding some things to my workout regimen, putting on more weight, it’s a mixture of all that which has helped me have the season I had.
“With that, too, multiple innings is hard as a reliever. That’s one of the things that is really overlooked in this game. Obviously starters do it, but it’s a different impact on your body when you do it [as often as a reliever] throughout a season and throughout a week.”
In other words, Hader has learned that he works best in one-inning stints. He threw 16 pitches to hitters on Tuesday night at American Family Field in his final on-field tune-up before Game 1 on Friday.
“I think he's really grasped it. It's, 'Hey man, I'm committed to doing this one-inning role and I'm going to be ready every day to pitch,'” pitching coach Chris Hook said. “I think it's just more mentally easy for him. No. 1, he's throwing [fewer] pitches per inning because he's throwing multiple pitches for strikes. He's getting easier outs. I think it all kind of rolls together.”
Said Hader: “If you’re not learning throughout this game, no matter how old you get, you’re going to get stuck. I try to not allow myself to get stuck.”