‘Sometimes you have to protect yourself’: Why Josh Hader took a stand until he got a long-term deal

Sports

ON APRIL 30, with the Houston Astros tied 8-8 with the Cleveland Guardians in the ninth inning, Josh Hader emerged from the bullpen to pitch. This wasn’t unusual — Hader, whom the Astros signed to a five-year deal in January, has been a late-inning reliever for the Astros, San Diego Padres and Milwaukee Brewers since he took over the closer role in Milwaukee in 2019.

What was unusual was what happened in the next inning: Hader came back out. Despite giving up a double to David Fry, he got out of the 10th inning with two strikeouts and a fly ball, and the Astros won on a two-run walk-off homer in the bottom of the inning.

It was Hader’s first two-inning appearance since Sept. 7, 2019.

That gap was no accident. Hader, one of the greatest relievers of his era, had spent the previous four years working under unprecedented, self-imposed usage rules to keep himself healthy. Together with his agent, Jeff Berry, Hader became the first known relief pitcher to place such restrictions on himself.

“From the outside looking in, some people would say it’s selfish; some people feel like players should do what they’re told,” Hader said. “But if I get hurt, I’m not able to work. Sometimes you have to protect yourself.”

That remained Hader’s stance until a team was willing to make him a long-term commitment, a process that extended until late January, when the Astros signed Hader to a five-year, $95 million deal. It is the first multiyear deal of Hader’s career.

Now that his professional future is settled, Hader and Berry are telling the backstory of Hader’s contractual machinations in his first six-plus years in the majors — including an arbitration hearing against the Brewers that compelled Hader and Berry to set the usage rules.

Hader and Berry see the reliever’s story as a pertinent example of an almost existential problem for baseball: teams striving to suppress salary doled out to some of their best employees — some of their best players, like Hader — in an industry worth tens of billions.

Hader has struck out 42% of the 1,578 batters he has faced in the big leagues, and batters have hit .159 against him in his career, with a .293 slugging percentage. Since his debut in 2017, no relief pitcher has more fWAR than Hader’s 11.7. All of this data reinforces what his former manager, Craig Counsell, said about him: Hader is among the greatest relievers in baseball history.

“He’s been a historic reliever in our game,” Counsell said in an interview in late March. “He’s had just one blip in his career” — in 2022, he had a two-month stint when he gave up 25 runs in 19 appearances — “but other than that, there’s never been anybody better.”

And yet Hader lost his arbitration hearing in 2019 and went unsigned for months this winter, in what Berry believes is a lack of acknowledgment of his importance to a roster. It’s a well-known pressure point for relievers and even starters. Last year, Tampa Bay Rays reliever Ryan Thompson posted about his issues with the arbitration process; he made $1 million in 2023 after asking for $1.2 million. Now-Baltimore Orioles ace Corbin Burnes lost his hearing and earned $10 million rather than $10.75 million and said his hearing “definitely hurt” his relationship with the Brewers.

According to multiple agents interviewed for this story, the industry’s view of relievers has made them more and more disposable: Teams believe relievers’ volatility means it makes more sense to cycle through a high volume of bullpen arms with one-year obligations rather than committing to multiyear contracts. One agent pointed to a parallel to how NFL teams view running backs.

​​”This efficiency model has taken over a lot of the industry,” Berry said, “and it’s bonkers.”

In 2013, the 30 teams across MLB used 513 relievers. Last season, 651 pitched in major league games — an increase of more than 25% over a decade, with many at or close to minimum wage. That this all comes at a time when arm injuries are ever more prevalent only exacerbates the problem.

Through the course of reporting this story, players, agents and members of multiple front offices agreed with Hader and Berry’s larger point.

“The system is broken,” one team staffer said. “We need to find a way to make it better.”


HADER WAS A 19th-round draft pick of the Baltimore Orioles in 2012, and the following year, he was traded to the Houston Astros — where David Stearns was assistant general manager — in a deal for pitcher Bud Norris. Two years later, Hader was traded to the Brewers in the summer of 2015 — where Stearns inherited the left-hander again when he was hired as general manager that September.

Hader made his major league debut on June 10, 2017, and right away, he became a unique weapon out of the bullpen of then-Brewers manager Craig Counsell. Counsell lined him up against left-handed hitters but also deployed him for multiple innings in high-leverage situations before the ninth inning. Of the 35 games that Hader pitched in his rookie year, he generated four or more outs in 16 of them. Corey Knebel was the Brewers’ closer and an All-Star that season; Hader did not register a single save.

Hader was just as good in 2018, when he pitched 81⅓ innings, the sixth-most innings by any reliever, over 55 games. Hader got 12 saves in 2018, and then in 2019, he continued to pitch as the Brewers’ closer, picking up 37 saves; he worked more than three outs in 15 of those 37 saves. The Brewers were using him like a Swiss Army knife, Berry recalled, and the lefty was thriving.

The following winter, Hader was eligible for salary arbitration for the first time. What he had done on the mound was largely unprecedented, but Berry, needing a comparable performance in history, cited Jonathan Papelbon’s one-year, $6.25 million deal as a closer with the Boston Red Sox in 2009. Berry asked for $6.4 million in arbitration for Hader. The Brewers offered $4.1 million.

The day before the hearing, Stearns and Berry spoke, and Stearns made a two-year offer over speakerphone. Though Berry doesn’t remember the exact proposal, he said it did not reflect Hader’s standing as an elite reliever.

“It seems that you want to go to a hearing,” Stearns said, according to Berry. (Stearns — now the head of baseball operations for the Mets — said in a recent phone interview that he would not comment on conversations he had with Berry or Hader.) Berry recalled that Stearns, who had once worked in Major League Baseball’s central office, pitched a warning. “I’ve seen the case,” Stearns said, “and it’s going to be bad.”

Berry knew that meant MLB’s case would be based on Hader’s low volume of saves — the primary currency for relievers in free agency — in his first 2½ seasons. Stearns also acknowledged that the lawyers presenting the case for the Brewers would introduce offensive statements that Hader posted on social media as a teenager, years before he signed professionally (a tactic front offices had used in contentious arbitration hearings before).

To Berry, this was mind-boggling — a team minimizing and obscuring the performance of one of its own players, and an example of how counterproductive the arbitration structure was for relievers. Berry consulted with Hader before relaying a message to Stearns: “Bring up anything you want.” Stearns and the Brewers knew better than anyone, Berry thought, just how dominant Hader had been. Nothing could change that.

When the arbitration hearing began, Berry made his case, pointing to Hader’s historic performance. The lawyers working on behalf of the Brewers and MLB’s labor relations department — which typically drives arbitration recommendations to the teams, with the team carrying the right to act on its own — focused on the saves, in spite of how Milwaukee deployed Hader.

Berry recalled Patrick Houlihan, the executive vice president of Major League Baseball labor relations, opening his argument by saying that Berry and Hader were trying to change 40 years of precedent, referring to the importance of saves in similar hearings. True or not, Berry felt it a disingenuous argument, given how the Brewers had deployed Hader.

“What I heard in that room was how they valued relievers,” Hader recalled, “and it was 100% based on saves.”

Even so, when a union lawyer called Berry to tell him that Hader had lost, he was shocked. When he spoke with Stearns for the first time after the decision, Berry said Stern’s response seemed to be: Sorry, that’s the system. Berry remembers Stearns’ kicker: “He’ll make his money in free agency.”

Stearns assured Hader that it wouldn’t affect their relationship. “We value you as one of the best pitchers in the organization,” Hader remembered him saying.

An MLB spokesperson declined comment on the specifics of Hader’s rules, pointing to a statement issued by management last year about the arbitration process: “During the last round of bargaining, MLB proposed replacing salary arbitration with a formulaic approach that would have paid more money to arbitration-eligible players in aggregate. That proposal was rejected. We continue to believe the salary arbitration system creates unnecessary acrimony between the clubs and players and wastes an enormous amount of time and money. We would welcome the opportunity to discuss changes to the system.”


BERRY SPENT DAYS stewing over management’s handling of Hader’s arbitration.

Before resigning from CAA in March, Berry was a player representative for 26 years, and more than once he had called for change in baseball’s system. When Buster Posey, one of his clients, suffered a shattered ankle in a home plate collision in 2011, Berry campaigned for rules about home plate collisions, which he says earned angry calls from both players’ association and Major League Baseball officials; that rule was changed. In 2018, Berry wrote a long memo to players advocating for change on arbitration, salary structure and roster manipulation, which led to a tense call with commissioner Rob Manfred. Berry now says he served as a source of a story about how MLB officials award a championship belt for success in navigating the arbitration season.

So after mulling over Hader’s treatment, he had an idea.

“My first thought was: ‘You can’t have it both ways,'” Berry recalled. “You can’t say he’s the best and use him any way you want, and then not pay him like the best. You can’t throw up your hands and say, ‘That’s the way it is.'”

He presented his idea to Hader while the two played a round of golf: If the Brewers were going to fight the All-Star over his salary, then they would design rules to protect him. Berry had never heard of another pitcher dictating his own usage, but he also had never had a pitcher used as Hader had been. Berry proposed three new rules for Hader to present to the front office: He would not pitch more than two days in a row; he would not pitch more than three outs; he would pitch only in a save situation or when the score was tied.

Hader quickly agreed. Hader and Berry had watched teams use elite relievers over and over until they broke — like Dellin Betances of the Yankees, who was deployed in a similar high-leverage role. Betances made the All-Star team for four straight seasons (2014-2017) before suffering injuries that derailed his career at age 31.

“If they don’t see what I do as valuable,” Hader said, “and I can’t get the value I’m worth, then why would I put myself in jeopardy to get hurt — and not have a job? If I get injured, a team isn’t going to sign me to a long-term deal, because I wouldn’t be able to pitch and I’d have no value to them. I was just following what they told me was valuable.”

Berry called Stearns to inform him of the pitcher’s personal rules, and he remembers Stearns reacting in disbelief. “You can’t tell us how to use our player,” Stearns said, according to Berry. But Stearns’ only real recourse, Berry knew, was to suspend Hader — and provoke a public confrontation with one of his best players. Berry said that Stearns was initially skeptical about Hader’s rules and whether having those restrictions would become unworkable over a full season.

“This was about doing what was right for Josh Hader,” said Berry, who said his sense was that Stearns never took the pitcher’s stance personally. “[Stearns] understood the position I was taking, even if he didn’t agree with it.” When Stearns was asked for his memory of first hearing about the Hader rules, he wouldn’t comment.

The pitcher met with Stearns and Counsell in the manager’s office at the Brewers’ spring training site to discuss the rules for how he would be used, and he believed Counsell processed them with respect for his feelings. As a player, Counsell had been part of the union’s executive committee, and as a manager, he has a reputation for being an excellent communicator. In a recent interview, Counsell, now in his first season as manager of the Chicago Cubs, recalled that conversation with Hader.

“It’s hard to disagree with it,” Counsell said. “I think Josh had worked really hard up to that point, and done whatever the team had asked him to do. More than anything, Josh was trying to stay healthy. … How can I not agree with that? Especially after what he had done.”

With Hader’s rules in place, Counsell managed the closer over the next 2½ years. During the regular season, he did not find the situation onerous. “He was available; he pushed himself to be available,” Counsell said. “I didn’t feel restricted by him not being available.”

Stearns wouldn’t talk about the specifics of the meeting with Hader but said that afterward, “Josh did a really good job with us communicating what his preferences are. … Throughout his time in Milwaukee, the goal was to always use him in the highest leverage point.

“With the open communication and the back-and-forth with Josh, I think it allowed Josh to perform at a high level, and along the way, the Brewers won a lot of games.”


AFTER THAT MEETING, Hader’s usage shifted dramatically. In the COVID-shortened 2020 season, Hader got four (or more) outs in only one of his 21 appearances, and he never pitched more than two consecutive days. During the 2021 season, Hader pitched on three consecutive days April 29-May 1, and then again June 11-13 and Sept. 24-26. He never had an appearance of more than three outs. Early in 2022, Hader got saves on both ends of a doubleheader.

Midway through the 2022 season, Hader was traded to the Padres, who were in the midst of their best season in decades. During trade negotiations, he and Berry asked that his usage guidelines remain intact. In a season and a half in San Diego, Hader recorded 40 saves; he made his fifth All-Star Game and closed five games in the 2022 playoffs without giving up a run. In all, since 2021, the lefty had racked up 103 saves and three more All-Star appearances, averaging 14.6 strikeouts per nine innings.

Meanwhile, the Padres were among the most aggressive teams in pursuing stars, trading for Yu Darvish and Juan Soto, chasing after Trea Turner and Aaron Judge as free agents and signing Xander Bogaerts. Joe Musgrove and Jake Cronenworth signed extensions with the team. But the Padres never advanced talks on a long-term deal with Hader, according to Berry. “They knew we were open to it,” Berry said. “The Padres could’ve signed him.”

But the Padres didn’t engage, and when Hader reached free agency in fall 2023, no one else came running either.

“There weren’t many calls,” Berry said.

He reached out to the Texas Rangers, who were coming off a World Series title and, on paper, seemed to be an excellent fit for Hader. But Berry heard the same from general manager Chris Young that other agents did: Because of the Rangers’ uncertainty over their television deal, they didn’t have spending flexibility. Berry remembers citing the Rangers’ own success with Corey Seager and Marcus Semien as an argument to pursue Hader. “You’ve proven the impact that star players can have,” he said to Young.

The Los Angeles Dodgers checked in, the New York Yankees checked in, other teams checked in. Team doctors reviewed his medical records, which sources from multiple front offices described as “very unusual” because they didn’t reflect the wear and tear normally seen for a reliever with as many years of service as Hader. But no offers. Berry was flummoxed.

Two executives with teams in contact with Berry believed the price point for Hader was out of their range because Berry told them that Hader should get offers that reflected his standing as the best reliever in baseball. To those executives, this meant that Berry would not settle for less than Edwin Diaz‘s record-setting five-year, $102 million deal with the Mets.

But Berry said he did not ask for a specific amount; rather, he felt he invited offers. And got none in November, or December, or in the first weeks of January. For 2½ months, nobody made a proposal for arguably the most dominant left-handed reliever ever.

“That is completely illogical behavior,” Berry said. “In a business built on competition, it doesn’t make any sense.”

Then Astros reliever Kendall Graveman underwent shoulder surgery in mid-January.

Houston, which lost relievers Hector Neris, Phil Maton and Ryne Stanek to free agency this winter, had been the first team to check in on Hader in the fall, and reached out again after Graveman’s injury. This time, Astros GM Dana Brown told Berry he was ready to be aggressive. “We love this guy,” Brown told Berry. “We’ve done our homework.”

The deal — five years, $95 million — came together quickly. In the end, it was the largest reliever contract ever in terms of present-day value (Diaz’s deal included $26.5 million of deferred money). For Hader, it was also a homecoming, a decade after he won a California League title with Houston’s High-A team in 2014.

His long journey to a multiyear commitment from his employer was finally over. And with the contract signed, Berry asked Hader how he could be used by the Astros.

“Any way they want,” Hader said. “They made a commitment to me, and I’ll make a commitment to them.”

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