Even in the tone of the times -- a time when strikeout rates are again on the rise and electric arms pour out of 'pen -- the sick stuff and sizzling stats of the Mariners' Edwin Diaz and the Brewers' Josh Hader stood out in the 2018 season's opening month. And if you can't hit 'em, honor 'em.
Diaz was named The Hartford American League Reliever of the Month for March/April, while Hader took home the National League honor. This was Hader's first time winning the monthly prize; Diaz previously won it last July.
The right-handed Diaz, nicknamed "Sugar," brings the M's conventional sweet relief in the ninth. And during Seattle's strong start to the season, he was pretty much perfect. Diaz converted all 11 save opportunities for the highest save total in the Majors. Along the way, he posted a 0.63 ERA and held opponents to a .043 average in 14 1/3 innings.
"Last year was my first year as a closer, and I was thinking too much on the mound," Diaz said last month. "This year I came with the mentality to make pitches and not think about much. Just focus on the hitter and catcher and make my pitch."
Diaz struck out a whopping 27 batters in that small sample, 47.5 percent of the batters he faced.
"We like him right where he's at right now," Mariners manager Scott Servais said last week. "He's been great, going after guys. There's been a stretch of 8-10 pitches where the command will kind of get away from him, but being able to regroup and get back on the mound and come back at guys, he's been awesome. Really, really valuable."
As for Hader, he whiffed 62.9 percent of his batters faced in his 18 innings. The highest strikeout per nine innings mark in history for a reliever with at least 50 innings is Albertin Chapman's 17.67 mark in 2014. So far, the long-haired 24-year-old Hader is at 19.5.
"There are a few guys in the league who have fastballs like that," teammate Eric Thames said last month. "Out of the hand, you think it's going to be a ball down. Then, bam, it has that late life, and it just blows you away. It's like, 'I was right on that pitch,' and then it's in the mitt."
On Monday in Cincinnati, Hader became the first pitcher in history to strike out eight batters in fewer than three innings of work.
"Josh had a great month," Brewers manager Craig Counsell said. "We've got a bunch of guys in the bullpen that had a great month. I'd put [Jeremy Jeffress] up for that award for sure. It's been a really important group for us. It's good that someone on the pitching staff has been recognized."
With strikeout stuff like that, it's little wonder that Counsell has used Hader often. But he doesn't use him in the so-called closer role. Rather, Hader falls in the line of the modern high-leverage arm available anytime, anywhere against anybody, a la Cleveland's Andrew Miller. Hader has finished four games, but he's also come in as early as the fourth inning. And eight of his 11 appearances have been for north of three outs.
"Just got to keep it rolling, and help the team out any way I can," Hader said. "Any time you can get records and stuff like that, it's pretty sweet. But the mind-set stays the same, doing what I've been doing coming out of Spring Training. Still working on the secondary [pitches], making sure everything stays consistent. It's definitely an honor."
Now he's got an award. And Diaz and Hader are proof that missing bats and getting outs translates well to any relief role.