Why is Josh Hader’s trade value low?
The emergence of Devin Williams as the likely closer out of the Brewers’ bullpen has prompted a lot of speculation about Josh Hader’s availability in trades — which is why he’s popular in proposals here on BTV. Since Milwaukee has other roster holes to fill, they might be smart to trade Hader to help fill those holes.
So what is he worth in trade? At the moment, we have Hader’s surplus value at 15.5
At first glance, that seems low, right? So let’s dive into why.
Through 2019, Hader was absolutely dominant. But in the weird, shortened season of 2020, he was less so. After putting up back-to-back fWAR seasons of 2.6 and 2.3, he slipped to 0.3. Extrapolated for a normal-length season, it’s the equivalent of 0.8.
Meanwhile, his FIP (a key stat in measuring fWAR for pitchers) has risen from 2.23 in 2018, to 3.10 in 2019, to 4.03 in 2020. The numbers themselves are less concerning than the trend, which is clearly going in the wrong direction.
Another key stat which influences our model for bullpen arms is WPA (Win Probability Added), which we find especially resonant for relievers because their whole job is to come in during the second half of a game (usually) and either hold a lead or keep their team in it. WPA is a proxy for that higher-leverage aspect. Relievers may not pitch as many innings as starters, but the ones they do pitch tend to mean more. So the higher the WPA, the better the reliever typically is at keeping the opposing offense at bay during critical times.
And indeed, Hader was fantastic at this in his two best years, accumulating 3.30 in WPA in 2018 and 3.15 in 2019. But something changed in 2020 by this measure as well: he finished at 0.33. Again, extrapolating that to a normal season (which we don’t recommend, as it’s volatile) would give us 0.89 — still good, but far from elite.
Meanwhile, Hader’s average fastball velocity dipped in 2020, from 95.6 to 94.6. Perhaps more significantly, he threw it less: in 2018 and 2019, his fastball accounted for roughly 80% of his pitches, with his slider comprising the other 20%; in 2020, his fastball/slider mix changed to roughly 67/33. So instead of slinging his heater four out of every five times in his best years, he backed off to throwing it two out of every three in 2020.
It’s quite possible that’s just a statistical blip. But it’s another data point going in the wrong direction. And it correlates with his reduced effectiveness.
Looking ahead to 2021, projection systems see a pitcher who’s lost a tick off of his fastball, is throwing it less, and is not getting outs in high leverage as much as he used to. Steamer projects him for only 1 WAR.
Using our method, which incorporates WAR, WPA, Statcast data, and injury risk (which is also a potential issue with Hader’s frame and unorthodox delivery), we project Hader to have a field value of $13.6M in 2021, and if normal patterns hold, $13.3M in 2022 and $12.9M in 2023, for a total of $39.8M.
Meanwhile, Hader is getting expensive. He qualified for Super Two status last year, which started his arbitration clock early. This year, based on MLBTR’s estimates, he figures to earn $6.8M. If normal patterns hold, he’ll be in line to earn $10.2M in 2022 and $15.3M in 2023.
That comes to $32.3M. Subtracting that from our projected field value above gives us a surplus of $7.5M.
But wait. We have to adjust a few things. First, notice that his projected field value of $12.9M in 2023 is less than his projected salary of $15.3M. Given that he’d be approaching his last arbitration year at that point, there’s a good chance he’d be non-tendered, since that’s a very high price to pay for a reliever. So instead of the Brewers eating that negative value, our model assumes that wouldn’t happen.
So let’s erase 2023 entirely from the books. Over the next two years, Hader would be worth $26.9M and be earning $17M. That’s a surplus of $9.9M. That’s better.
In addition, our model adds a small 5% premium to left-handed relievers because there’s a supply-and-demand market benefit for them. Further, since Hader is a star and figures to generate more market demand, we’ll add another 10% to his field value. Both of those adjustments together get us to a two-year field value of $31.1M, which, against his projected $17M salary, gives us a surplus of 14.1.
Still not high enough? Let’s go a step further still, and skew his range to the high side, figuring there could be a bidding war, on top of the market demand we’ve already factored in. We’ll put his minimum at 90% of that 14.1 number (which is 12.7) and his high side at 130% of it (which is 18.3). The median between those two is 15.5 — which is the number you see on the site today.
Another way of thinking about this is that, if Hader were a free agent, these numbers imply a three-year deal worth about $52M. That’s more than a $17M AAV, and would tie the Wade Davis contract for the largest ever given to a reliever.
We had to do some squinting just to get to that number, so going much higher than that seems excessive — especially when you consider the downward trends in the stats against the sharply rising arbitration salaries. Further, not a single team claimed Brad Hand at the $10M price point, which suggests the market for relievers is soft — it’s one area teams will look to shave salary, since there’s often an abundance of cheaper relief options on the market. It’s possible the demand for Hader’s expensive years may not be robust.
So what we’re looking at is a reliever who has gone from great to merely good, and from cheap to (getting) expensive, in a cold market. And as it is, the valuation is already about as high as it can go.
Given that, if the Brewers shop Hader, there will be some demand. But it’s unlikely they’ll get a huge haul for his services in return.