Want a quick route to the Majors? Try being a left-handed reliever. Every team needs one, and there never seem to be enough to go around. It's part of what pushed Brandon Finnegan to the World Series the same year he played in the College World Series. If you're a left-hander who can get fellow left-handers out in a pinch, Major League teams will find you a spot.
Josh Hader has all the qualities that make a great left-handed reliever, beginning with his plus fastball and slider, his positioning on the first-base side of the mound and his sidearm delivery. Many in the industry believe that package will someday lead to a role at the back of a bullpen. Indeed, 14 left-handed Southern League batters have faced Hader this season. Nine struck out, one walked and no one has gotten a hit off him.
"I didn't even know that," Hader said of the zero in the hit column. "Hopefully, that doesn't come to an end now."
But here's the thing -- the Brewers' No. 4 prospect has been pretty darn good as a starter, too.
Hader came to the Milwaukee system from the Astros last July in the Carlos Gomez deal -- the second trade of his career -- and posted a 2.79 ERA and 0.98 WHIP with 50 strikeouts in 38 2/3 innings during his first stint at Double-A Biloxi. The Brewers sent him to the Arizona Fall League, where he was used in the bullpen to limit innings, and ended up leading the prospect-laded circuit with a 0.56 ERA over 16 innings.
Back as a starter with Biloxi, the 22-year-old southpaw is putting up great numbers once again, beyond just what he's been able to do against left-handers. Hader has a 0.78 ERA and 1.09 WHIP with 32 strikeouts and nine walks in 23 innings. His 12.5 K/9 rate is tops among all Double-A hurlers, while his 2.12 FIP ranks third in the Southern League. By comparison, right-handers are hitting a more robust .254 -- then again, anything would pale to .000 -- but he's still fanned 39 percent of such hitters.
Those aren't numbers you associate with a LOOGY -- a Lefty One-Out Guy.
"It's felt good," Hader said of his start to the 2016 campaign. "One of the things I wanted to do this season was to continue what I did in the Fall League and carry it into this season. Obviously, I was in a bullpen role there and I was coming into the season as a starter, but I'm still trying to do the same things. I want to pace myself to go farther into games. I had a little bit of a slow start where I wasn't able to get past the fourth a couple times, but I was able to do six last time. That was huge."
That outing the 2012 19th-rounder was alluding to was his April 30 start at home against Tennessee, his longest of the season, in which he allowed one earned run on four hits and a walk while fanning five over six frames. Three of those four hits came in the first inning, though, and it was after that frame that he made a change -- one that those around him don't believe he would have made during his first trip through Double-A.
"He's added a little pitchability to his game," said Biloxi pitching coach Chris Hook. "Last start out, he would have a difficult time going through the game in the past because they were jumping on his fastball. But he made a Plan B adjustment to try his secondary pitches more, and then they were really stuck. They could hit the fastballs, but they couldn't do both."
Those key secondary pitches are Hader's slider and changeup. The former was considered to be the better of the two options entering the season, with MLB.com giving it a plus-60 grade on the 20-80 scale. But both Hook and Hader noted that it's been the change that has been the more reliable of the two pitches thus far. The left-hander has made it a key point to focus on making sure it comes out of his hand at the same angle as his mid-90s fastball, leading many hitters to either watch it go by for a strike or swing while flailing out on their front foot (as in the video above).
"It's been the best it's ever been," Hader said.
The slider can be dangerous when it comes out of the relatively low-angle, sidearm delivery, but Hader himself said it had gotten a little too loopy in his first four starts. The emphasis has been on tightening the breaking stuff to help with command and to make it harder for hitters to sit on.
"He needs to find a feel where he can get through the ball and create consistent spin," Hook said. "There are times he tries to steer or manipulate the baseball a little too much. He brings a lot to the mound as a naturally gifted athlete. We just need to nudge toward some of the smaller things."
Those natural gifts, though, have been good enough right now to probably get Major League left-handers out on a regular basis in small spurts.
"He's tall, long, turns his back to hitters, so it's hard to see," Hook said. "His arm angle is different. There are so many things that make him different from your ordinary left-hander. We all try to get guys commanding the baseball, but he just brings something different. You take the little different angle, the different delivery and add the stuff component on top of that, then it becomes spectacular. You just don't see the length, angle, funkiness, stuff from that side."
There are few who doubt that. Hader received glowing reports in prospect writeups from major publications such as Baseball Prospectus, Baseball America and ESPN.com, but all but ESPN predicted that Hader is likely ticketed for the bullpen if and when he hits the Majors. MLB.com was the only site to rank Hader among its top 100 prospects, placing him at No. 57.
Based on Hader's raw stuff and his results with the organization thus far, the Brewers know they have something special in the 22-year-old pitcher and are hoping that the developments of the off-speed pitches can help keep him in a prominent starting role at Biloxi, Triple-A Colorado Springs and beyond.
"If you're a big league reliever, you have two pitches you can throw for strikes," Hook said. "If you have three pitches, you can be a long-term starter. I think he has the capability to do that. Can he go through a lineup three times? I think so. If that's the goal and he falls short, that's OK. But you see the competitiveness, the athleticism, and you think he's got every shot to make it."
Sam Dykstra is a reporter for MiLB.com. Follow and interact with him on Twitter, @SamDykstraMiLB.