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Deeper Dives on Josh Hader and Robert Stephenson

The Houston Astros created quite a splash this week when they somewhat unexpectedly signed free agent closer Josh Hader to a five-year, $95 million pact. This is the largest contract ever given to a closer, slightly surpassing the deal Edwin Diaz signed with the New York Mets last winter, which had about $10 million deferred.  The Astros have had Ryan Pressly as their full-time closer since the 2020 season. Pressly certainly did nothing to lose the role; he had four wins and 31 saves to go with a 3.58 ERA and 1.07 WHIP. He does have a checkered injury history and just turned 35.  Perhaps sensing this passing of time and possible diminished return on investment, the Astros went out and got Hader, the top free-agent relief pitcher in the market.

Early speculation is that Pressly will move to an eighth-inning leverage spot and Hader will stake his claim to the closer role. Context matters; the Astros did not shell out $95 million for Hader to be a setup man.

A few hours later, the Los Angeles Angels signed free agent high-leverage reliever Robert Stephenson to a three-year, $33 million contract. They add him to a bullpen that already houses Carlos Estevez, who had some success as a closer last year with 31 saves. The early speculation is that this could be a time-share to start the season and that the team will let it sort itself out starting in Spring Training.

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Diving into Josh Hader

Hader is generally considered to be one of the best closers in the game. Hader has earned over 30 saves every season except the pandemic-shortened 2020. He is usually one of the first three or four closers off the board in most fantasy baseball drafts. Hader had two wins, 33 saves, a 1.28 ERA, 1.10 WHIP, and a whopping 85 strikeouts in 56.1 innings. Let’s take a look at Hader’s Statcast page.

The blood red is what you love to see on a pitcher’s page.  Of note is the 36.8 K%, good for the 99th percentile in all of Major League Baseball. The one thing that may give you pause is the 13 BB%, which is troubling for a relief pitcher, but as long as he keeps striking batters out at a frightening clip, he should remain a top option.

Hader slots into the closer role in Houston and will be supported by the aforementioned Pressly and holdover Bryan Abreu, who could likely close for many other teams. Interestingly, a week ago the Astros learned that Kendall Graveman would miss the season due to shoulder surgery, and there seemed to be a glaring weakness in the bullpen. No longer.

Robert Stephenson

Stephenson has long been an intriguing arm who put it together in 2023 while pitching for the Tampa Bay Rays. Stephenson had three wins, one save, nine holds, and a 3.10 ERA with a .98 WHIP.  Stephenson also had 77 punchouts in 52.1 innings. But those numbers do not tell the whole story. Stephenson was pitching badly in Pittsburgh when the Rays acquired him in early summer, and when the Rays get a pitcher, as a fantasy player, pay attention. Stephenson was second in MLB with a 30.4 K-BB%, behind only Felix Bautista. His 38.3 K% was third in MLB, behind only Bautista and Aroldis Chapman.

The big difference seems to have been a change of heart with his grips and pitch mix. Pitching coach Kyle Snyder suggested that Stephenson change his grip on his slider to try and elicit more velocity on it.  The change in hand position unlocked Stephenson to become the most effective reliever in baseball in the season’s second half.  Making this change added more than four miles per hour to the slider, and resulted in more backspin.  Statcast is confused by the pitch, with some pitches looking like a slider, and others more like a cutter.  Stephenson and Snyder insist it was a slider. Stephenson had 79 at-bats that ended with the cutter/slider, and 42 of those at-bats ended with a strikeout.  Only eight of those at-bats ended in a hit.  Call it what you will, but the success rate with the pitch was staggering and coupled nicely with his 97 MPH fastball and decent splitter. An interesting chart of what he did last year:

You can see the actual confusion Statcast on the “slider” here as well:

If Stephenson can keep these gains, he could be closing sooner than later in Los Angeles despite the presence of the aforementioned Estevez.  Youngster Ben Joyce could join in with Jose Soriano to create a devastating back end of the bullpen for the Angels. It’s important to note as well that Estevez is in the last year of his contract, which means the Angels could look to move him for prospects at the trade deadline should they decide they are not in the playoff race.

Two interesting moves by AL West teams here as we head into the last month before Spring Training begins. Our bullpen chart will be back again this year, complete with documenting the revolving door at closer and where you might be able to find holds as well.  Find me @mdrc0508 on Twitter/X, and my work on bullpens at Fantrax.

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