It’s been a weird start to the season across the pitching landscape with slow starts from aces, underwhelming performances from potential breakouts, and tangible inconsistency in many bullpens around the league. One person this does not apply to, however, is Josh Hader, as coming into the Brewers’ matchup with the Dodgers on April 12, he had yet to allow an earned run through 7.2 innings, and he had 13 strikeouts to his name. The most impressive part? He was doing it almost exclusively with his fastball. With an immaculate inning under his belt in which every pitch was a fastball and with an absurd 33.3% swinging-strike rate on the pitch, Hader isn’t out to fool opponents — he’s out to impose his will on them. Hader entered in the bottom of the eighth inning with the Brewers leading the Dodgers 7-5 and was more than likely being asked to pull off yet another six-out save, as he was set to face the bottom third of the order in the eighth.
His first hitter would be David Freese, who was pinch hitting for Dylan Floro. Freese worked a 1-1 count after watching two fastballs go by. It should be noted that up to this point in the season, Hader had allowed a mere two baserunners. Ten days prior, he allowed a ground ball down the line for a double, and the next day he walked a man. So it’d been nine days since Hader has allowed a base runner, and only one of them got to second base. Well, he left a fastball in the heart of the plate, and Freese led off the inning with a double that he absolutely smoked (110 mph exit velocity) to the left field wall. Frustrating for Hader, I’m sure, but he still had the eighth hitter coming up in the form of Austin Barnes.
Barnes popped out weakly to first base on the second pitch he saw, allowing Hader to get on the board with a low pitch count. That brought Chris Taylor to the plate, who, with a 27% strikeout rate for his career, shouldn’t have been too much of a worry for Hader … except that Hader fell behind him 3-0. After working back to 3-2, Hader tried to put Taylor away with a fastball that Taylor fouled off, and on the seventh pitch of the at-bat, Taylor muscled a pretty good pitch from Hader into center field, moving Freese up to third base and putting runners on the corners.
With Joc Pederson and his career .251 wOBA against lefties due up, Dave Roberts called Max Muncy to the plate to pinch hit. Muncy struck out at about the same rate against lefties as Pederson in 2018, but he was much more effective against them, evidenced by his eight home runs, .376 wOBA, and .891 OPS. With a Hader wounded for the first time all season and the tying run coming to the plate, Roberts was clearly thinking about doing more than just closing the gap. He wanted to take the lead with one swing.
Brewers lead 7-5, men on first and third, one out, Hader vs. Muncy … here’s your at-bat of the week.
Pitch # 1, 0-0
Well, we were about half an inch away from this not being the at-bat of the week. This is a bad pitch from Hader that Muncy is right on, but he just barely misses it. Muncy peppered center field and left field in 2018 for 16 of his 34 home runs, and he was close to depositing another one to the opposite field right here. Instead, he’s down 0-1 to the best lefty in the game.
Pitch #2, 0-1
A much better pitch from Hader this time. He adds a little extra gas and elevates this ball to give him a nice effective boost in velocity, and Muncy can’t quite climb the ladder to get to it. Muncy appears to again be pretty solid with his mechanics and his timing, but the location from Hader is too good on this one.
This is actually a pitch that Muncy loves to attack. Against lefties in 2018, he barreled up 10 balls, and four of them came in the upper third on the inner half. So if Hader was going to beat him up there, it was going to have to be perfect.
Pitch #3, 0-2
I know what you’re thinking, and the answer is yes (love me some Brian Fantana): That was Hader’s first slider of the inning. After 14 fastballs and two pretty good swings from Muncy, Hader tried to fool him with an offspeed pitch. This was not a well-executed slider, but Muncy still does a pretty decent job of protecting the zone and not getting too far in front of it.
Pitch #4, 0-2
He can’t possibly throw two sliders in a row … or can he? Well, he did. And this is another bad one. Muncy effortlessly watches this one bounce, and Hader fixes his hair. It’s clear that he doesn’t have his best stuff tonight and certainly doesn’t seem to have a great feel for his slider. With men on first and third and one out, Hader doesn’t want to risk Muncy putting a ball in play, as Muncy does not hit the ball on the ground very often and a ball in the air could score Freese from third. Muncy has now put two really nice swings on two fastballs, fought off a slider, and watched another slider fall aimlessly outside. He looks comfortable.
Pitch #5, 1-2
WHOA! How’s 96.1 mph and a nice spill? Sheesh. Still comfortable, Max? After sitting 93 to 95 mph, Hader dials it up to 96.1 mph and sends Muncy tumbling to a knee with this up-and-in screamer. Now, we know that Hader has perhaps the best four-seamer in the game, but we also know that he hasn’t had his best command tonight. Looking at where Yasmani Grandal was lined up, perhaps this one just got away from Hader.
Pitch #6, 2-2
Orrrr … maybe not. Grandal lines up away again, but now it looks like Hader has a plan. After coming way inside on the previous pitch, Hader starts to shift just a touch closer to the plate with the clear intention of changing Muncy’s strike zone. After he nearly put the barrel to the ball on the first two fastballs he saw, Muncy is now being set up to swing in a mental strike zone that Hader hopes has shifted a few inches up and in from where is was.
Pitch # 7, 3-2
Another nasty fastball at 96.4 mph. Grandal lines up away for the third time in a row, but it’s very clear now that Hader is going up and in on purpose. Muncy puts yet another terrific swing on this ball and just swings underneath it, and you can tell by his reaction that he’s seeing the ball well and feels like he should have done more with this one. However, despite what he thinks, this is just a tremendous pitch from Hader that most hitters would be lucky to foul off.
To watch the previous two pitches soar past your face and still carry over your adjustments from the two fastballs you saw earlier in the count takes a ton of toughness, but unfortunately for Muncy, Hader has continued to climb the ladder to keep him from squaring up the pitch. With Muncy’s elite plate discipline and quality swings during this at-bat, Hader knows he has to be perfect here. He’s tried to impose himself, but Muncy hasn’t flinched. What’s coming on pitch #8?
Pitch # 8, 3-2
GOT HIM! WOW! What a pitch from Hader. And what a battle between these two.
Hader doesn’t have to think all that often. He kicks doors down with his fastball and cruises through lineups effortlessly. Muncy momentarily swung the momentum in his direction when he got Hader to go away from the fastball and try a couple sliders, but Hader bullied his way back into control with two vicious fastballs up and in around Muncy’s eyeballs.
Hader threw those two fastballs with the clear expectation of getting a whiff on the one that followed, but after Muncy amazingly fouled it off, he knew the pitch needed to be about 2 or 3 inches further inside. So what does he do? He throws it 2 or 3 inches further inside, resulting in a foul tip into the mitt of Grandal.
After this epic battle, Hader would go on to walk Corey Seager in another seven pitch at-bat before getting a clutch strikeout of Justin Turner with the bases loaded on his 32nd pitch of the inning. The Brewers went on to make it 8-5 in the top of the ninth inning and closed the door in the bottom half to lock up the W.
If you see an at-bat during the week and believe that it deserves to be highlighted as the “At-Bat of the Week,” please tweet me @dannyhottakes.
Featured image by Justin Paradis (@freshmeatcomm on Twitter)