From his post in center field Brett Phillips has had a great view as opposing hitters flail away at Josh Hader’s pitches.
Phillips would feel particular sympathy for the left-handed batters, who almost always would be overmatched by the left-hander’s wicked pitches.
“Hader is the best pitcher I’ve ever faced,” Phillips said. “I just hit against him one time and he struck me out on three pitches, I’ll just say that. He’s one guy I don’t want to face again.”
Fortunately for Phillips, he and Hader are on the same side and figure to be for quite some time.
It was nearly a year ago that the Milwaukee Brewers’ rebuilding project began in earnest with the trade that sent center fielder Carlos Gomez and pitcher Mike Fiers to the Houston Astros for four prospects — Hader, Phillips, outfielder Domingo Santana and right-handed pitcher Adrian Houser.
That rebuilding process figures to continue for the next several years. But chances are Hader and Phillips will be key figures in whatever future success the Brewers enjoy.
Hader, 22, is the fastest rising prospect in the Brewers’ rapidly improving farm system. He jumped to No. 22 overall in Baseball America’s midseason rankings, based on his spectacular first-half performance at Class AA Biloxi. In 11 starts he had a 2-1 record with an 0.95 ERA, allowing just 38 hits in 57 innings while striking out 73. Left-handers hit just .075 against him.
That earned him a promotion to AAA Colorado Springs, where he’s had something of a rough introduction to pitching at altitude, as he’s gone 0-2 with a 6.38 ERA in his first five starts. But in his two road starts for the Sky Sox, his ERA remains a Hader-like 1.64.
Brewers first base coach Carlos Subero is convinced Hader has the makings of a dynamic major league pitcher.
“Hader’s a kid who has a great presence about himself and he has the stuff to back it up,” said Subero, who was the manager at Biloxi when Hader joined the organization last July and also managed him during the Arizona Winter League. “He throws so hard that as a hitter there’s very little margin for error. He comes at you and it’s tough.”
While serving as third base coach in Arizona, Subero heard from hitter after hitter just how hard it was to face Hader.
“Guys didn’t have a chance,” Subero said. “They were even joking he shouldn’t be allowed to throw sliders. They’re trying to sit on the fastball and he throws the slider and they’re like, ‘Ahhhh.’ ”
The 6-foot-3, 185-pound Hader has drawn frequent comparisons to Chicago White Sox ace Chris Sale for his lanky frame and low arm slot.
“Obviously, the funky delivery is the same,” Hader said. “But I don’t like to compare myself to anybody. I like to be my own self. But it’s always nice to be compared to a top-level pitcher in MLB.”
The success of Sale and fellow low arm slot slinger Madison Bumgarner of the San Francisco Giants has helped open the door for similar pitchers to be considered as potential starters, rather than being typecast as bullpen specialists.
Hader said his way of throwing just happened naturally and he’s stuck with it despite the best efforts of most of his coaches while growing up.
“That’s just what felt comfortable,” he said. “When I was younger all the coaches were like, ‘You’re going to have to stop throwing from there because you’re going to hurt your arm.’ I tried throwing from the top but it was just not comfortable for me. This was just kind of my natural arm slot that felt best.”
While Hader has attracted attention because of his unusual arm slot, Phillips has garnered even more notoriety for an even more distinctive trait.
Phillips, considered the centerpiece of the trade from the Brewers’ standpoint, became a spring sensation for his inimitable laugh. Video of his breath-defying laugh became a thing, thanks to Twitter, Deadspin and even Sports Illustrated online.
“Would’ve been cool to make my first Sports Illustrated appearance for being a good player or something,” tweeted Phillips, known by his middle name, Maverick, to friends and family. He struggles as much as anyone to describe the laugh: “Goose, dying donkey, pterodactyll, so many sounds. Like a mystery box I never know what sound is gonna come out.”
While the laugh is endearing, the Brewers acquired him for his other talents. Phillips was in the midst of a breakout season, batting .320 with 16 homers, 71 RBIs and 15 stolen bases between two minor league levels at the time of the deal.
Phillips finished last season at Biloxi and returned there this season. After hitting just one homer in 214 Class AA at-bats last year, he has flashed more power with 11 homers, but his batting average has slipped below .240. Still he’s ranked as the No. 28 prospect by MLB.com and No. 58 by Baseball America.
“He’s a hard worker and he can hit the ball,” Hader said. “His speed is unbelievable and his glove skills are outrageous.”
Hader and Phillips both could see some time in Milwaukee late this season and it wouldn’t be a shock if Hader was in the starting rotation and Phillips is in center field for the Brewers next season.
“The Brewers have this faith in me that I can in the future fill a role,” Phillips said. “Maybe not fill the shoes of Carlos Gomez because he’s an All-Star, but I’m just going to go out there and play my game, play hard like I always do and take care of the things I can control.”
While Hader is trying to not get ahead of himself, he’s not afraid to set his sights high.
“I like to set unrealistic goals for myself,” he said. “I like to not get complacent with where I’m at, so I always like to be better each day. My goal is to make it to the major leagues and then make it to the Hall of Fame.
“You’re not going to get complacent and be able to do that kind of stuff.”