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Josh Hader is the Brewers’ breakout candidate

He's talented. He plays for Milwaukee. He’s got a lack of big-league experience. And some optimistic 2017 projections. I didn't say a name, but he popped into your head, didn't he?

MLB: All Star Game-All Star Futures Game
For Hader, the future is now — according to the projections.
Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

For the third straight year, the Brewers are a rebuilding team. As such, they’re taking the time-honored strategy of “throwing shit at the wall and seeing what sticks” — spending most of 2017 giving unproven players a shot to, well, prove themselves. Playing in the same division as the Cubs and Cardinals, Milwaukee realizes it’ll need a ton of talent to contend, and thus it’ll take as many risks as necessary to acquire that talent.

The club took one such risk in November, when GM David Stearns signed Eric Thames to a three-year, $16 million free-agent contract. The 30-year-old slugger had spent the past three years in the Korean Baseball Organization, where he hit an astounding .348/.450/.720 across 1,634 plate appearances. If he can come anywhere close to that in MLB, Thames will make the Brewers’ gamble pay off handsomely.

Based on the projections we’ve seen for Thames thus far, that happy scenario for Milwaukee seems probable. ZiPS expects him to put up a .247/.321/.493 triple-slash en route to 1.8 fWAR in 507 plate appearances. Steamer is even more bullish, predicting a .272/.350/.515 line and 2.2 fWAR in 542 trips to the dish. As FanGraphs’ Dave Cameron wrote last week:

…basically every available projection system that attempts to translate Thames’ numbers from Korea to MLB see him as an elite slugger, and thinks he’ll control the strike zone well enough to be one of the best hitters in the league.

Shortly after the Brewers brought in Thames, my colleague Nick Cicere examined the changes he’d made to his swing in Korea. Nick arrived at the same conclusion as the projections: As he spent time beating up on inferior competition, Thames also transformed himself into a fearsome power hitter, whom the Brewers will soon unleash on the unwitting MLB competition.

But Thames isn’t the only breakout candidate on the Brewers. Over on the pitching side of things — where Zach Davies and Junior Guerra, among others, had some unforeseen success of their own in 2016 — a hurler without any major-league experience also has some intriguing upside. While he hasn’t gotten the fanfare that accompanied Thames’s trip stateside, this 22-year-old southpaw (whose name the headline betrays) looks ready to explode onto the scene.

Let’s look at the top eight Brewers starting pitchers, according to Steamer, with their projected ERA, FIP, and fWAR normalized to 200 innings. One surprising name leads the way:

Steamer projections, Brewers SP

Player ERA FIP fWAR/200
Player ERA FIP fWAR/200
Josh Hader 3.94 3.99 3.3
Zach Davies 4.25 4.17 2.8
Junior Guerra 4.32 4.26 2.8
Brandon Woodruff 4.51 4.41 2.4
Tommy Milone 4.35 4.34 2.3
Wily Peralta 4.53 4.39 2.2
Jimmy Nelson 4.70 4.54 2.2
Matt Garza 4.77 4.67 2.0

It’s not just Steamer, either. On Monday, FanGraphs released the Brewers’ ZiPS projections for 2017. Down in the pitching section, the order of the top eight starters had moved around a bit — but the leader by fWAR stayed in place:

ZiPS projections, Brewers SP

Player ERA FIP fWAR/200
Player ERA FIP fWAR/200
Josh Hader 3.90 3.85 3.3
Zach Davies 3.99 3.95 3.1
Junior Guerra 4.24 4.54 2.4
Brandon Woodruff 4.27 4.15 2.4
Jimmy Nelson 4.34 4.45 2.2
Aaron Wilkerson 4.43 4.32 2.0
Brent Suter 4.48 4.45 1.7
Chase Anderson 4.64 4.69 1.6

And not only is Hader predicted to be the best starter on his team, he has a sunnier outlook than each of the following semi-eminent pitchers:

  • Matt Shoemaker (3.2 fWAR/200 by Steamer, 2.7 fWAR/200 by ZiPS)
  • J.A. Happ (2.6 fWAR/200 by Steamer, 3.2 fWAR/200 by ZiPS)
  • Jeff Samardzija (3.1 fWAR/200 by Steamer, 3.2 fWAR/200 by ZiPS)

Those three hurlers combined for 9.1 fWAR in 2016, and Hader — who, again, has never pitched in the majors — is apparently on their level. Is he for real? Can this farmhand really make the leap in 2017?

To answer that question, we should get some background on this guy. The Orioles drafted Hader back in 2012; he spent about a year in their system, displaying enough potential that the club was able to ship him to Houston in July 2013 in exchange for Bud Norris. As an Astros prospect, he really started to take off; even another trade — this time to Milwaukee in the 2015 Carlos Gomez deal — couldn’t slow him down.

Still, he wasn’t quite an MLB-caliber player at that point. Baseball Prospectus’ Christopher Crawford succinctly summarized Hader’s profile during the 2015 offseason:

[A]ll Hader has done over the last two years is pitch effectively while missing bats, and all that’s come from it is questions about whether he can do it as a starting pitcher.

Even through his prosperous 2014 and 2015 — in which Hader compiled a 3.17 ERA across 227 innings as a 20- and 21-year-old at High- and Double-A — some doubts remained about his future. He fanned a ton of batters (26.8 percent of them, to be exact), but he also gave out too many bases on balls (to 9.3 percent of hitters). Further, his fastball- and slider-heavy pitch mix suggested he’d have problems with right-handed hitters.

So how did Hader’s 2016 go? He dominated in the first half of the year, with a 0.95 ERA in 57 Double-A frames to earn the 45th spot in BP’s midseason prospect ranking. That success wouldn’t carry over into Triple-A, where he limped his way to a 5.28 ERA over a completely unnoteworthy 69.0 innings. However, given the elevation of his home ballpark (Colorado Springs sits about 6,000 feet above sea level, which is 800 feet higher than Coors Field) and his decent 3.81 FIP, I’d say he didn’t struggle as much as his runs allowed would suggest.

2016 as a whole was another productive year for Hader — he pitched 126.0 innings of 3.28-ERA ball, and although his walk rate crept up to 10.5 percent, he compensated for that with an 30.8 percent strikeout rate. Against righties, he wasn’t especially impressive, but a .244/.333/.371 line served him quite well, and would certainly suffice going forward. (Meanwhile, he struck out more than half of the lefties he faced.) Overall, it’s reasonable to label Hader one of the best 100 prospects in baseball.

Even some moderate regression from Hader’s 2016 output would make him a respectable rookie in 2017. Just look at some recent cases — guys like Jair Jurrjens (3.20 minor-league ERA in 2007, 3.68 big-league ERA in 2008), Michael Pineda (3.36 minor-league ERA in 2010, 3.74 big-league ERA in 2011), and Marcus Stroman (3.30 minor-league ERA in 2013, 3.65 big-league ERA in 2014) made top-100 lists before debuting, and all three managed to keep their heads above water afterward.

With the average MLB starter’s ERA likely to remain above 4 for the third straight year, Hader would only have to keep his ERA around 4 (as both Steamer and ZiPS think he will) to be an average pitcher. TINSTAAPP is obviously a factor here — Hader’s arm could always fall off, or he could start the year in Triple A and implode at the high altitude; the potential he has, though, more than makes up for any risks in his profile.

So let’s say Hader makes progress against righties, refines his control, and solidifies himself as a major-league starting pitcher for 2017. What’s his ceiling? For the answer to that question, check out this eerily familiar GIF of Hader in action:

GIF via MLB.com

The tall, lanky build; the small hitch before the release; the sub-34, yet not quite sidearm delivery; does this seem similar to something you’ve seen before?

GIF via MLB.com

Of course, the odds of Hader becoming the next Chris Sale are incredibly slim; even Chris Sale wasn’t supposed to become Chris Sale. Nevertheless, the tools — a mid-90s heater, a “true swing-and-miss offering” of a slider, and a budding changeup — are there. Even if Hader doesn’t harness them this year, he’ll still have them in his possession (barring an injury, of course). He can tinker with his command and strive for greatness on a rebuilding club, and who knows? Maybe he’ll actually attain it!

The Brewers aren’t asking Hader to headline their rotation — they have Davies and Guerra to take up that mantle. Like Thames, Hader will be fine if he just chugs along, pumping out a satisfactory season as a left-handed starter (something the Brew Crew has had a shortage of recently). Hader’s enticing upside is just the icing on the cake of a solid big-leaguer in the making.

. . .

Ryan Romano is the co-managing editor for Beyond the Box Score. He also writes about the Orioles for Camden Depot, and about politics for The Diamondback. Follow him on Twitter if you enjoy angry tweets about Maryland sports.