The sole Maryland native participating in Tuesday night’s All-Star Game at Nationals Park might be one of the event’s best success stories.
He was drafted by the hometown Orioles in the 19th round six years ago after appearing on the organization’s radar just before his final high school start. He was tall and skinny, and his fastball pushed the mid-80s. He didn’t do the showcase circuit and wasn’t a big draft prospect, and he was planning to continue his baseball career at a local community college.
But two organizations later, Milwaukee Brewers left-handed reliever Josh Hader — who grew up in Millersville — is an All-Star for the first time at the age of 24. And he’s putting up one of the most dominant seasons of any reliever in baseball history.
The Orioles traded Hader to the Houston Astros at the 2013 trade deadline in exchange for right-hander Bud Norris. While the other piece of that trade — outfielder L.J. Hoes — had just been named the organization’s minor league player of the year, even then it was clear that Hader was the prospect with more upside.
Hader was dealt to the Brewers at the trade deadline two years later, and after a midseason call-up last season, he’s emerged this year as one of the National League’s best and most versatile relievers, used anywhere from the fourth inning to the ninth, to pitch to one batter or cover three innings.
Hader enters the All-Star Game with 89 strikeouts in 48 relief innings this season, making for a 50.3 percent strikeout rate that is the second highest of any pitcher since 1900, trailing only the 52.5 percent strikeout rate that the Aroldis Chapman, then of the Cincinnati Reds, recorded in 2014.
The magnitude of that achievement doesn’t affect Hader, who speaks softly and matter-of-factly. He’s just happy to be an All-Star, knowing that future accolades aren’t guaranteed.
“I’m not too much on paying attention to that,” Hader said. “I just go out there and have fun. Get outs when I need to.”
But the idea that Hader will participate in his first All-Star Game just 25 miles away from his hometown isn’t lost on him.
“When we play the Nationals, they’re able to come to a game” Hader said of family and friends being able to watch him pitch. “But something like this, it’s a once in a lifetime where you never know if you’re going to experience this again. You try to have fun with it and really it means a lot to me for everyone to kind of experience it with me.”
Orioles scout Dean Albany was in the Dominican Republic when he received a tip about a lanky lefty at Old Mill that he needed to see. He had just one start left, so Albany flew back to Baltimore to see him.
“The delivery was similar but the velocity was a lot different,” Albany said. “He was 85-88, mostly 86, 87. But it was the same delivery, the same kind of angle. Of course, I didn’t know he’d be what he is, but I did think he’d be able to be a good left-on-left guy. And even if his velocity didn’t come all the way to where it is now, with that angle and his athleticism, I did think he’d be really tough for left-handed hitter. But I didn’t realize that he was going to throw 96, 97 and be that dominant.”
Even though he never pitched for the Orioles, Hader might have been one of the club’s best recent finds. Orioles executive vice president Dan Duquette wanted to recruit more local talent, and Hader was perfect for that.
The Orioles signed him for a mere $25,000 bonus.
“He didn’t do to other tryouts,” Albany said. “Nobody else had him on their list. He was going to Anne Arundel Community College, so we didn’t have to battle to buy him out of Florida State or South Carolina or Clemson. We didn’t have that. He wanted to play. He wanted to pitch.”
Hader benefited right away from pro ball, and in his first pro season, his fastball has gone from mid-80s to low-90s.
“I really think just growing into my body and getting into a lifting program where I could gain weight and gain muscle, just having that and meeting new pitching coaches, they had an impact on my game,” Hader said.
When he was traded to the Brewers, Hader ditched working from the windup, and exclusively pitching from the stretch helped him repeat an unconventional delivery.
“I think it’s helped me a lot, helping me be consistent with my arm slot and just my windup in general, being able to repeat my delivery,” Hader said. “The fact that I can repeat my delivery most of the time, the majority of the time, everything is going to react the same. Just trying to be as consistent as possible.”
This year, Hader has overwhelmed opposing hitters. Opponents are batting just .120 against him, which is the lowest in the majors among all qualifying relievers .He’s allowed just 19 hits and 19 walks over 48 innings for a 0.79 WHIP that is best among National League qualifiers and tied for the best in baseball with Seattle Mariners closer Edwin Díaz.
“He’s understanding the game,” said Hader’s Milwaukee teammate and fellow All-Star reliever Jeremy Jeffress. “He’s taking his role on pretty well. He knows how to bounce back each and every day. I think he’s established himself here as one of the guys. … He’s a great guy. He doesn’t stress about anything. He just enjoys the game, plays the game, he’s very well coachable. He just takes the game and runs with it.”
Hader said he dreamed of coming up with the Orioles and being able to pitch for his hometown team, but knows the path he took still took him to his ultimate goal of pitching in the major leagues.
“At first, yeah, that’s what you want to be,” Hader said. “You want to be that hometown guy. You want to go through the minor league system and make your debut in front of all your fans and family and friends. But the main goal is to become a big leaguer and I’m trying to be a big leaguer for as long as a possibly can.”
And now, he’s living out another dream this week, his first All-Star Game.