If you were asked to name the five best relievers in Major League Baseball back in spring training, there’s a strong chance that Josh Hader and Sean Doolittle would’ve been on your list. Fast forward to mid-August, and if you were asked to name five big-name MLB relievers who are struggling, the two left-handers would likely be on your list.
So, what’s at the root of their struggles? Well, it’s actually bigger than them. It’s how severely relying on one pitch can come back to bite relievers in the rear.
Overall, Hader isn’t having a bad season. Sporting a 3.02 ERA and 0.86 WHIP while totaling 106 strikeouts, he has kept runners off the basepaths and been a reliable arm in the Milwaukee Brewers bullpen. At the same time, he has struggled mightily in recent memory.
In six of his last seven appearances, Hader has surrendered at least one run and a combined four home runs in that time span. On the year, he has surrendered 13 home runs. To put that into perspective, he surrendered that same number of home runs in the last two seasons combined.
Hader has a violent and mesmerizing delivering. He cocks back and follows through on pitches at blazing speed, and his fastball registers in the high 90s on the radar. Hader’s delivery, at times, makes his pitches look faster than they actually register, and that’s partially due to his pitch selection.
Now, Hader toys with four offerings: four seamer, slider, sinker, and changeup. However, he only consistently throws two of those pitches, and he heavily relies on one of them, that being his fastball. In fact, he throws his four seamer 82.9 percent of the time.
Is Hader’s fastball, at times, unhittable? Yes. He totals strikeouts at an elite clip, and he blows the pitch past hitters, much to the amazement of the Miller Park crowd and baseball audience. But when it’s basically the only pitch you throw, you become predictable. This season hasn’t been some of his finest work. His ERA is respectable, but it’s also a career worst, and over the last two weeks, he has been giving up towering home runs.
If you were asked a month ago to summarize Doolittle’s season, you’d probably say that it was another dominant season coming out of the ninth inning for the Washington Nationals. Then he faced the New York Mets in Queens on August 9. Surrendering six hits and four runs, he raised his ERA from 2.81 to 3.51.
Three days later, he surrendered two runs in the ninth inning of an appearance against the Cincinnati Reds. Saturday night he surrendered four runs, including three home runs, against the Milwaukee Brewers. Doolittle currently sports a career-worst 4.33 ERA and 1.40 WHIP.
Doolittle is struggling to get strikes across the plate, and hitters are pouncing on his fastball and making it a souvenir. This season he has surrendered a career-high 10 home runs. He’s also struggling to locate the strike zone. That combination derives from his pitching arsenal.
Yes, he has three pitches in his toy box, a four seamer, split-fingered fastball, and slider. However, Doolittle throws his four seamer 89.8 percent of the time. If you can’t command the offering, or hitters are teeing off on it, you’re in peril, and the Nationals have to feel anxious when he takes the hill right now.
Let’s be clear: Hader and Doolittle are elite backend relievers and held in such esteem because of their success overpowering hitters with their fastball in the past, as well as their ability to reach the high 90s on the radar. A problem ensues when you throw the fastball too much and don’t have another offering to lean on when you can’t control it.
There are ugly downsides to any pitch someone struggles to command, but none worse than a fastball. In Hader’s and Doolittle’s cases, when the hitter knows what’s coming, velocity doesn’t matter. The pitch isn’t going to drop or come in on them. While the hitter has to make a split-second decision whether to swing well before the pitch reaches the plate, if the put-away pitch is a fastball, he has a better chance of making considerable contact; it becomes a matter of getting the barrel on the ball.
That’s why you see these two relievers surrendering so many home runs; hitters are loading up and putting their imprint on the ball because they know what’s coming. It’s also why starting pitchers on the back nine, or ones who have endured an enormous drop in velocity, rely on a wide pitching arsenal. If they threw their fastball even 70 percent of the time, they’d be batting practice. Instead, they keep hitters guessing and will sometimes fool them with an occasional fastball late in counts.
Relievers, and pitchers in general, who can mesh their velocity with more than one pitch last a long time in the big leagues.
There’s nothing wrong with pitching to your strengths and repeating your best offerings, but, at some point, pitchers, relievers in particular, become predictable when they throw one pitch at an overwhelming rate, no matter the sustained success they’ve endured in the past.
Hader and Doolittle have no margin for error when they’re on the hill. Their discouraging August results epitomize the effects of being a one-pitch reliever.