We will get to Brad Hand in two seconds, but if you’re just joining, a brief introduction! I’m doing a series entitled “Twelve Days of Free Agent Relief Pitchers,” in which I hope that people of all or no religions will feel welcomed, as long as they worship a fastball that averages 98 MPH (guess who?!).
I am ranking these pitchers, but I am not positing landing spots, because marriages between particular relief pitchers and teams are more difficult to project than with position players and starting pitchers. Everyone needs relief pitching; even teams that have it wouldn’t mind having more of it, if they could come by the right deal. And teams that need it may not address it with the most obvious fit. That said, I do outline who needs relief pitching most in my first piece.
Also, if you happen to not be familiar with any of the advanced metrics I mention, I have very brief explanations of them here.
On the first day of RPs, my true love gave to me: a Liam Hendriks in a pear tree.
On the second day of RPs, my true love gave to me: one…
I do regret that Brad Hand did not happen to fall upon the third day of RPs, for the obvious verbal resonance with ‘three French hens.’ Even ‘four calling Brads’ would have been fun, but Hand’s track record makes him the second-best reliever on the market, and I can’t mess with the rigorous intellectual integrity of this very, very serious ranking of free agent relief pitchers based upon a holiday song. (Note: the rigorous intellectual integrity in these articles is actually scant.)
And to prove it to you, here’s another metaphor. Brad Hand’s 2020 season was a foie gras truffle burger of excellence sandwiched between two pieces of less-than-awesome Melba toast. Through the first couple of weeks of the season, Hand was toting a 6.35 ERA, and his season concluded by blowing a one-run lead to the Yankees in the Wild Card series, dashing the team’s playoff hopes.
However, the 30-year-old lefty still notched 16 saves, the most in all of baseball, with the peripherals to back it up. Like Hendriks, his wOBA and xwOBA were at the top of the league—the top 2% and 4%, respectively. Not only does his 1.37 FIP actually outshine his 2.05 ERA for the year, this is the fourth straight year of this kind of excellence from Hand, in his time with the Indians and Padres. Since 2016, he has a 2.70 ERA and a 2.92 FIP. (Glossary here, if you need a refresher on any of these terms, or their significance.)
A Brad in the Hand Is Worth…
I knew I could work in an avian pun yet! Despite Hand’s excellent track record, cash-strapped Cleveland decided to decline his $10 million option. Of course, they had first placed him on waivers, clearly in the hopes that they wouldn’t have to pay him even the $1 million to release him. Since the Cleveland Baseball Team can churn out All-Star pitching and have James Karinchak waiting in the wings, the more puzzling event is that all other 29 teams decided to pass on a year of Hand.
This could be an indication of how depressed the free agent market is going to be, in both senses of the word, or it could be that teams didn’t want to engage in potential trade talks with Cleveland when Hand’s services might be obtained for just good old American cash. Or, teams could want to lock the closer up for two to three years, possibly at a lower average annual value (AAV).
The crowd at FanGraphs guesses $27.9 million for three years of Hand, which would put the number just below $10 million/year. This might have felt optimistic to me, initially, but the slowly-moving free agent has yielded some surprises, ie. four years and $40 million for James McCann. This may merely be attributable to Uncle Steve, however. Only time will tell.
…Two RPs in the Bush?
But with Hand, teams may be wary of a few things. 2020 represented the second straight year of declining velocity. His average fastball in 2018 was 94.1, per FanGraphs; this year, it was 91.8. He’s also down couple of strikeouts per inning, though a) maybe this was the Melba toast, and b) this still leaves him with an excellent 11.89 K/9, equal to his Padres years.
It’s helpful that, since 2017, the slider, and not the fastball, has functioned as Hand’s establishing pitch, thrown 50% of the time in 2020. However, it has also suffered a similar velocity decline, from 82 MPH in 2018 to 79.6 MPH. It seems reasonable to imagine that this might be what is impacting the Whiff% on the pitch, which was down to 38.6% from 42.6% last year. That’s good but not excellent for a slider; I calculate it to be around the 58th percentile out of 190 pitchers’ sliders from last year.
A small sample could be at play with a declining strikeout rate, but it seems rooted in a particular skills decline.
Moderately more concerning, both last year and this have seen a significant drop-off in his ground ball rate, from around 46% to around 26.5%. He barely threw his sinker in 2019 (3.5%), but hurling it more in 2020 (12.4%) didn’t budge the ground ball rate. And it’s easy to see why: since 2018, his sinker has lost nearly 5 inches of vertical movement, taking it from a pitch with 24% more vertical movement than the average two-seamer, to a league-average one.
But at only 30 years old, on the younger side in this pool of free-agent relievers, we can all still hope that Hand will be an excellent gift for the team that signs him. What are they going to do with two turtle doves, anyway? Randy Johnson long ago proved that baseball’s a dangerous environment for birds.
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