After a one-year hiatus during which the honor went to one of his teammates, Josh Hader has once again been recognized as the National League’s top relief pitcher.
Hader won the 2021 Trevor Hoffman National League Reliever of the Year Award for the third time in four years on Wednesday after another strikeout-filled season as the Brewers' closer. He also won it in 2018 and ’19 before Milwaukee setup man Devin Williams' historic rookie season in ’20 temporarily knocked Hader from the top spot.
The hardware belongs to Hader again after he led the Majors with a 45.5 percent strikeout rate in ’21 while posting a career-best 1.23 ERA in 60 regular-season appearances. Hader notched 34 saves, including a streak of 20 consecutive conversions in the first half and another streak of 14 successful save chances to finish the regular season -- a stretch that featured the final three outs of Hader's combined no-hitter with Corbin Burnes on Sept. 11 at Cleveland. Hader converted his only save opportunity in the NL Division Series against the Braves before experiencing heartbreak after entering a tied Game 4; Freddie Freeman’s home run off Hader gave the Braves the series and ended the Brewers’ season.
Still, Hader’s career strikeout rate of 44.4 percent is the highest in Major League history for pitchers who have logged at least 20 career innings. 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 in a year. Williams’ 53 percent in 2020 is the all-time record.
“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.
In recent years Hader has expanded his repertoire beyond his electric fastball while learning what he needs to do to stay strong the whole year through. Hader weighed in at 190 pounds going into the postseason, at least 10 pounds bulkier than past years.
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, with his long hair flying, flung pitches their way.
“It was special for me,” Hader said of his season. “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.”
Dating back to the introduction of the Rolaids Relief Man Awards in 1976, this marks the sixth time that a Brewers pitch has won MLB’s primary reliever of the year award. Rollie Fingers won in 1981, John Axford in 2011, Hader in ’18, ’19 and ’21 and Williams in ’20.