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Sky Sox explain strategy behind prospect Josh Hader's abbreviated starts

June 6, 2017 Updated: June 7, 2017 at 10:19 am
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Lefthander Josh Hader delivers a pitch against Omaha during the second inning Thursday, April 6, 2017, at Security Service Field in Colorado Springs, Colo. (The Gazette, Christian Murdock)

When it comes to Josh Hader’s status, the Sky Sox are doing everything short of posting a flashing sign blaring, “Nothing to see here.”

The left-hander, who is widely considered a top-40 prospect in baseball, has gone just two innings in each of his past two starts. And he wasn’t pulled for ineffectiveness. In the two outings he gave up no runs, a total of two hits and struck out eight against two walks.

That fired up Twitter, where speculation ran wild that Hader was either being called up to Milwaukee or being shifted to a bullpen role.

None of that is happening, the Sky Sox insist.

Hader threw 126 innings last year. The Brewers as a general rule don’t like to increase by more than 15 percent more innings in one year, which means Hader won't venture much past 140 innings this season. With Hader at 50 innings after two months, his schedule had to be tweaked if he’s going to available by the end of a six-month campaign. The Colorado Springs Sky Sox season ends after five months, but Milwaukee’s continues that extra month.

The 23-year-old will return to his normal pitch count in his next start.

“We want to make sure with our young guys so we don’t overtax them,” manager Rick Sweet said. “So we cut their innings back down here, they’ll have more innings in September to use up there.

“But it got blown out. The press got ahold of it and they’re saying, ‘He’s getting called up,’ and everybody goes, ‘What? Where’s this coming from?’ But he’s a prospect. He’s a top left-handed prospect. So everybody watches every move that we make. We just didn’t prepare for that.”

If Hader was going to the bullpen, Sweet said, he would have pitched on one or two days rest instead of following his usual starting routine.

As further proof that this is business as usual, Sweet pointed out that starting pitcher Paolo Espino skipped a start Monday to limit innings.

“It is nicer, it gives my arm a blow from 100 pitches,” Hader said. “The two innings is more getting your work in now so I can start the next half after this. My next start’s going to be a regular start. I can see where I’m at and get back to where I was.”

The short outings produced some of Hader’s best results during his time in Triple-A, where he has a 5.28 ERA over 121 innings – he posted a 2.73 mark over 180 innings in Double-A.

“I felt like my pitches were a lot better and my control was a lot better,” Hader said. “Being able to put away guys, my stuff had more of an aggressive feel and more bite to it. Now it’s just repeating that through five and six innings.

“Last year we did kind of the same thing, skipping a start. It’s about how you finish, not how you start. It’s a long season, so you’ve got to do what you can to stay healthy. That’s the key. But it’s also nice to have that light blow.”

 

FULL CONVERSATION

Here’s the Q&A with Sky Sox manager Rick Sweet as he explains to The Gazette’s Brent Briggeman the details of the plan that saw key prospect Josh Hader throw just two innings in each of his past two starts:

Can you explain the latest with Josh Hader, obviously those two short starts raised plenty of eyebrows?

Every week or two weeks, we get an innings-pitched list. We don’t want guys to go over 15 percent more innings from year-to-year. We don’t want a guy to throw 50 innings one year and 200 the next, although if he’s been hurt we understand all that. This is the time of year we start skipping starts. We’ve done it with (Paolo) Espino. We’ve got to get it done with Woodruff. We’ve elected to go ahead and, rather than skip a start with (Hader), because of the type of pitcher he is, we didn’t want him to be away from it. So we selected to go with two starts of two innings each, so it keeps his innings down and see how he reacts to it. Usually we keep innings down by skipping by skipping starts, and we do it once or twice a year. With him we went a different route. It’s just a special case.

Is that a product of having a contending team in Milwaukee, and he might be needed late in the year?

Yes. Everything we’re doing right now is, ‘Yes, but…’ We only do that to a certain point down here. We’re still an organization that’s in a rebuild. Now, for us down here, you’ve got to look at him and Woodruff, Espino – who has already been up once, may go again -- they’re going to have an extra month. You go back to what I talked about with the innings. If they pitched just here … But you’re got to figure some of these guys may well go to the big leagues. If they do, that’s a whole other month of wear and tear on their arms. We want to make sure with our young guys so we don’t overtax them. So we cut their innings back down here, they’ll have more innings in September to use up there.

But it got blown out. The press got ahold of it and they’re saying, ‘He’s getting called up,’ and everybody goes, ‘What? Where’s this coming from?’ But he’s a prospect. He’s a top left-handed prospect. So everybody watches every move that we make. We just didn’t prepare for that.

But another way to look at that is, if he’s really effective in two-inning outings, could he shift to a bullpen role?

It’s a matter of needed or want. He’s a starting pitcher and we haven’t taken him out of that. If we were going to do that he’d throw two innings, have one or two days off, throw two innings. We didn’t do that. He threw two innings. Had his regular four days off. Threw two innings. Had his regular four days off. His next start … I’ve got it all mapped out. (Pitching coach) Fred (Dabney) has the same thing. We know how many pitches they threw, how many innings they threw every start for the whole year. … Every pitch that’s thrown is Track-manned. It’s just the nature of the game. And everybody else, we forget everybody else starts reading into what we do. We cut his innings back. When you ask him, that’s what he’s going to tell you.

When he goes into these starts, does he know exactly what the plan is?

Oh yes. He knew going in that it was two innings. If he had a perfect game, no-hitter; it didn’t matter. He was throwing two innings. It could have gone the other way if he had thrown too many pitches, because we have limits on pitches per inning also. If we have a guy go out and he’s got a 100-pitch limit in the game and he gets to a certain pitch limit in an inning, he’ll be out of the game. So, we’ve got all kinds of things that we monitor. But I understand the speculation that went on. I think it kind of caught people off guard a little bit.

Could a happy accident out of this be that he discovers something in these short outings? You look at someone like Danny Duffy, he resurrected his career by working out of the bullpen.

There’s a difference. You said the whole key to the difference – resurrected. This kid’s had no issues. He’s one of our top prospects we’re developing. We’re trying to get him ready to go up there. We’re not trying to make a reliever out of him, we’re just monitoring his innings so that he’ll have innings because we think he’s a good enough prospect – like everyone else – that they may want him in September when they expand the rosters. You’ve seen other organizations do it with their big-name prospects in the minor leagues. That’s all we’re doing is keeping the innings down.

In years when the Brewers were 10 games under at this point, would that have been done?

Absolutely. There’s nothing to it. It was a keeping-the-innings-down situation because we don’t want him throwing too many innings.

But you understand the difference. You could limit his innings by cutting him off in August. But if there’s a need in September, then it’s a different situation.

But you’re guessing ahead. Right now, we do it now then he can continue on through August and by September he’ll have more then. You do it now. The other thing is we just came out of spring training. He’s been throwing five, six innings every start. They need a rest. He’s a young guy. This isn’t the big leagues. This is minor league development. We’re winning, and that’s part of it. We were supposed to start Espino last night, our best starter, and we didn’t start him. Are we trying to win here by not taking our best starter out? No. We’re trying to win, don’t get me wrong, but within the framework of what the major league club wants. I understand everything you’ve said, you’re doing your due diligence, you’re checking on it; but there’s no smoke for there to be a fire. I get on the internet and I read stuff all the time and I laugh at it. I know there’s speculation; but I’m in the meetings and I know what’s going on. But it’s great reading material for people. But let’s face it, Hader can flat out pitch. Yes, some guys go to the big leagues and they relieve a little bit before they start; but that was not the reason. It was just, let’s not shut him down, let’s just monitor innings. This isn’t me, this is organizational. It’s all the way down from (Brewers GM) David Stearns down to Fred and I.

Will his next start be back to normal?

He’ll be back to normal. Although, we may cut his pitches down. We’re on a 105 limit now. We have been on a 90 all year. June 1st it changes to 105. But he won’t be at 105 because he’s had shorter pitch counts. So, again, we go back to it’s for the development of his arm and not overtaxing his arm in one start. We’ll build him back up a little bit.

Do you have to bite your lip a bit at times? You were around in the Nolan Ryan days when he probably threw 300 pitches in some starts.

That’s a long time ago. I like this. I’ve got a 15-year-old son who pitches. They put high school pitch limits. We had a kid who faced him the other day and threw 115 pitches. The kid’s 15 years old and they pitched him the whole game. They ought to shoot that frickin’ coach. Those days are long gone. We understand the arm now and how it works, so we’re careful with it. We build up strength, we keep an eye on it. Fred is absolutely the best I’ve been with at monitoring our pitchers and making sure they don’t get overtaxed. Rick Tomlin’s our pitching coordinator. It’s not that we have limitations, but we have parameters that we work in, and I think they’re awesome. We’re trying to get these guys ready to go win in the big leagues. It’s nice that the big club is winning. We’re obviously going to continue to try to win. But we’re not going to jeopardize one of these young players at the risk of maybe his hurting his career, especially in the minor leagues. In the big leagues it gets a little bit different. They push. But down here we have the luxury of controlling what we’re doing. Unfortunately, this little situation got away from us because we didn’t miss a start. It’s funny, Espino didn’t start yesterday and I didn’t hear anything about it. It was a non-entity. Some things blow up, some don’t.

But you mentioned it, Hader’s a top prospect.

He is. And Espino’s 30 years old. But again, he’s already pitched one start in the big leagues and he’s probably going to get some more.

In those two starts, was Hader’s velocity higher because he didn’t have to lengthen out?

I think it probably was a little bit. That was something I heard Fred talk about. Obviously if you know you’re only throwing two innings, you can go out there and turn it loose. You’re not throwing six.

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