I’m hilarious, I know. Bad jokes aside, we have some more MLB Hot Stove news, folks. The Washington Nationals, long in the running for worst bullpen in baseball, have signed former Cleveland closer Brad Hand to a one-year deal worth $10.5M. The lefty has been one of baseball’s most reliable bullpen arms since 2016, posting a 2.70 ERA and a phenomenal 33.3% K rate in that time frame.
The 30-year-old Hand was one of two big names who had their options for 2021 declined by Cleveland, along with Carlos Santana. In Hand’s case, this new deal with the Nats means he makes slightly more money than he would’ve in Cleveland and he gets the chance to be an important relief piece for a Washington team looking to return to October baseball after their 2020 hiccup.
This is the third one-year deal of magnitude the Nats have made this offseason, and Hand joins Jon Lester, Kyle Schwarber, and trade acquisition Josh Bell in the list of reinforcements the D.C. team hopes can get them back on track in what’s suddenly looking like a tough division with the Mets and Braves firmly in place as legitimate contenders.
More Bullpen Help
There are two things in baseball I consider to be universal truths: you can never have too many good relievers and there are no bad one-year deals. This signing fits both points, so I think it’s a slam dunk. Let’s see exactly what Hand brings to the Indians.
Hand is a pretty straightforward reliever. He throws an 80 MPH-ish slider and two different fastballs (a four-seamer and a sinker). He also has a curveball he throws once in a blue moon, but in simpler terms, he’s a two-pitch pitcher:
For reference, the dots on the right that look like gears are MLB average movement for that type of pitch, and the smoother ones are the ones that represent the movement on Hand’s pitches. You can see all his pitches have substantial horizontal movement with the slider, in particular, taking the cake. Hand’s slider features 7.2 more inches of movement than MLB average in 2020. This is a tremendous offering that gets both righties and lefties out. Hand commands this pitch pretty well and the Whiff% on it over the past few seasons has been, on average, north of 40%. That’ll play. Here’s Yasmani Grandal helplessly waving at one for strike three:
Of his two fastballs, Hand mixes in his sinker almost exclusively against right-handed hitters, but his four-seamer is still a lot more prevalent and his slider is still his wipeout pitch. Since I’ve touched on his fastball usage, let’s get into one of the few bad things about Hand’s 2020 season.
Slower Than Ever
Brad Hand had a very good 2020 season. He posted the lowest walk rate of his career (4.7%), struck out a third of the batters he faced and his 1.37 FIP was no joke. There are some factors that point to this being an overperformance, like the fact that he allowed exactly zero homers all year, which is near impossible to repeat again spread out over a 162 game season. But perhaps the most troubling aspect of Hand’s 2020 was a noticeable drop in fastball velocity:
Now, there may have already been a warning sign in 2019, but that 91.4 MPH average in 2020 took it a step further and represents his lowest average velo since 2012. Another disturbing trend is, along with the drop in velo, hitters have been swinging and missing at his four-seamer less and less since 2018, with a career-low mark of 9.4% in 2020 that puts him well below even the notoriously hittable fastball of a guy like Antonio Senzatela. Not what you want out of a late-inning guy, even if fastball velo was never Hand’s strongest trait.
Also worth noting is Hand is 30 years old and has endured a serious workload since 2016, with his 320 innings ranking second among all relievers and only behind Yusmeiro Petit. Relievers are notorious for being volatile, but Hand is not at that point. I think if he falls off, it’ll be because he’ll stop being effective, not random variance.
Of course, all this talk about worrying about Hand’s velo can be dismissed with the simple argument that he was still really good in 2020 despite the drop. After all, his .235 xwOBA against was the lowest of his career, so I think I have to see him decline for real in terms of his results before I believe it. Brad Hand should be a very good addition to a Nationals team looking to return to their winning ways and if he’s not good anymore, it’s only a one-year commitment. I like this one, Mr. Rizzo.