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California League Profile: Josh Hader

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Though elusive as the lost love child of Nessie and the chupacabra, pitchers who thrive in the California League do exist

Astros prospect Josh Hader kicks and deals. Photo courtesy of Mike Hirsch and the Lancaster JetHawks
Astros prospect Josh Hader kicks and deals. Photo courtesy of Mike Hirsch and the Lancaster JetHawks
Lancaster JetHawks

Josh Hader, LHP, Houston Astros (Lancaster)

Drafted as a local high school product by Baltimore in the 19th round of the 2012 draft, Hader was acquired by Houston in the Bud Norris deal at the deadline in 2013. After an A-ball performance in which he survived spotty command to produce topline numbers well beyond his peripherals he jumped to High-A Lancaster in 2014. And once there he survived, nay, thrived, thanks to some fairly dramatic improvements in his command and a welcome tick of additional velocity.

John awarded him a "B" grade and slotted him seventh in the organization this winter, though he noted a split remains between scouts who see mid-rotation upside and those who see a future reliever. After a couple viewings last summer I came down on the optimistic end of that spectrum. Let’s take a look at Hader’s mechanics and stuff.

Hader stands a wiry 6’3" and weighs just 160, giving him almost the same dimensions as, well, me. That’s exciting, because I don’t see a Major League starter’s body type when I look in the mirror. But Hader utilizes the frame effectively to generate momentum, leverage, and deception. Lots and lots of deception. He starts at the far corner third base side of the rubber and comes far across his body from a low three-quarters slot. The arm slot is inconsistent, intentionally so. He shows a willingness to both drop down even farther to a borderline sidearm for an occasional different look on a two-strike breaking pitch, as well as get more vertical to create plane to the arm side.

Regardless of release point, he uses his length effectively to get wide, and the weight transfer is rhythmic and loose. His wind-up includes a hitch on the initial step-back and rock that seems designed creates momentum for his turn and keeps him in sync. It’s an important step that he apparently added before the 2014 season, and the control and command has responded in kind with a nice step forward.

Hader's game works first and foremost off the outstanding deception he creates with a near-full back. The ball takes forever to appear, as he comes all the way around his body and uses his front leg plant to fire his hips late and generate torque for a slingshot-style release.

The mechanics are both a strength and a weakness. Hader can struggle to get all the way through his turn and retain his release point out of the stretch without the hitch and timing of his wind-up, leading to balls up and out of the zone to the arm side. He can also get loose in the zone, and when he does it usually results in a miss up high. Still, despite a lot working against him he shows a reasonably well-advanced command of three pitches.

His fastball sits 89 to 92 and he can hump it to 94 from a higher arm angle. The pitch features outstanding deception that allows the velocity to play up. The pitch stays fairly true and straight, but it gets on hitters in a hurry. He works off this pitch very heavily, showing control and reasonably consistent command to all four quadrants. He’s less consistent getting the pitch across to his glove side, though, and he can leave it dangerously elevated over the heart when he misses.

He will also elevate the pitch frequently with intent despite lacking consistently plus velocity, and it's worth noting that his velocity will fluctuate into the middle innings as he tires. Still, the deception can help generate copious amounts of weak fly ball contact when he works up, and it’s a 50 pitch already with projection into 55 or even true plus range thanks to a potent balance of deception, command, and enough velocity.

Hader throws a slider and change as his complimentary pitches, and while neither projects as a plus weapon they both play well off his fastball and play up with deception and proper sequencing. The lesser of the two offerings, Hader’s deuce comes in anywhere from 74 to 78 and shows an irregular and inconsistent shape. The pitch works best when thrown harder and tighter from the higher arm slot, though as a change of pace he’ll get under the pitch to make it rounder and wider.

In addition to general mechanical concerns about delivery repetition, his long wrist can lead to difficulties getting consistent snap on the release. The combination raises command questions and makes projecting this pitch as consistently above-average difficult. It’s a fringy 40/45 offering presently that will probably need to get to a 50 in order for Hader to max out his potential as a starter.

Last in Hader’s bag of tricks is a solid change-up that sits in the low-80’s. His command of the offering lags at present, and he’ll leave it up to the arm side when his delivery gets long. The pitch presents as a potential above-average offering down the line, however. When thrown correctly the ball finishes well with good dive down in the zone and works very compatibly off his fastball plane. He demonstrates consistent arm speed pitch to pitch despite some poor releases.

Overall Hader’s going to be an interesting arm to follow over the next couple years, as the raw material is there for him to emerge as an average (or slightly better) Major League starting pitcher. He demonstrates the potential for 50 command of a solid and complimentary three pitch mix that works across three distinct velocity bands. He displays an outstanding mound presence, working quickly and aggressively and trusting his fastball to beat hitters despite lacking truly elite velocity. The fastball plays up big time on account of his funky delivery, and at his best he’ll be a fly ball pitcher who induces weak infield fly and can-of-corn contact.

On the cautionary side, while he came through his delivery pretty consistently in each of my viewings there was certainly opportunity to see how his length can spell trouble if he’s off-balance on a given day. He’ll likely prove vulnerable to the longball at times, and his lack of above-average projection on his breaking ball leaves him without the kind of LOOGY safety net pitchers with a similar profile typically have.

The hitch at the beginning of his wind is a nice balancing mechanism that helps him make his turn fluidly, but a lot of things have to stay on time in his delivery to get him to his release point. That he exhibits even an average ability to command his arsenal despite the body and wind-up is a strong point in his favor.

At present Hader's body type presents obvious durability questions in a full-season rotation. His frame can certainly support more weight, and it will need to in order to handle the grind of 180-plus innings a year. But adding bulk will be a delicate process, as his delivery is geared – and geared well - around his current physicality.

Finding pitch-to-pitch consistency, particularly with his secondary offerings and from the stretch, will determine how quickly he does or does not progress through this system. I look forward to seeing him against stronger competition, and I suspect he’ll need some time and repetition in the high minors to iron out his kinks. He should be a level a year player, but there’s cause for optimism that he can develop into a quality Major League rotation asset with further refinement.