Is this former lights-out reliever worth a shot?

Lefty was elite in 2020, but are there warning signs moving forward?

November 22nd, 2020

There were some raised eyebrows surrounding last month -- first when the Indians placed him on outright waivers and then when the other 29 MLB teams passed on him and his $10 million option (Cleveland eventually paid a $1 million buyout). This was a three-time All-Star reliever and a proven closer who had just led the Majors with 16 saves (without blowing a single opportunity), and yet Hand entered the free-agent market unclaimed.

Hand might be the first domino in what could be a conservative Hot Stove season; teams are recovering from pandemic-induced losses in 2020, and they are trying to project for a wholly uncertain ‘21. Still, very few relievers have a better track record than Hand over the past half-decade, and though the ‘20 campaign was abbreviated, it represented one of Hand’s best by a handful of major statistics.

A one-year, $10 million contract for a reliever like Hand would have easily represented a bargain in prior years. So why didn’t anyone take the chance? Is it truly just the economic uncertainty, or are there other warning signs that teams see with the venerable left-hander?

Let’s try to think along with clubs as they evaluate Hand’s free agency in the coming weeks.

Hand remained elite in 2020

There’s a reason Hand was an American League Reliever of the Year award finalist. Apart from the saves, Hand’s 2.05 ERA, 0.77 WHIP, 1.37 FIP and 7.25 strikeout-to-walk ratio were all the best marks of his career (and yes, we’ll mention the inherent small-sample caveat of 2020 once more). Opponents hit just .169 against him, and the platoon disadvantage hardly existed: 77 of the 86 batters Hand faced were right-handed, and yet they slashed just .174/.227/.275. The only full-time reliever who threw more innings this year without surrendering a single home run was fellow free agent Alex Colomé (by a single out).

Hand did everything the Indians could have asked of him in 2020, and he’s long been one of the most dependable relievers around. He and Colomé are, in fact, the only relievers in baseball with at least 20 innings and a league-adjusted ERA+ of 125 or better (25% better than league average) in each of the past five seasons. Here’s where Hand ranks in various stats across that span.

Hand’s RP rankings, since 2016

Innings pitched: Fourth (320.0)
Saves: Ninth (104)
ERA+:** 11th (157)
12th (2.92)
WHIP*:** 13th (1.07)
*Strikeout rate:
12th (33.3%)
*K%-BB%:** 10th (25.2%)
*Min. 150 IP, at least 90% of games in relief

Hand was remarkably durable and placed himself somewhere around the top 10-15 relievers in the game for half a decade, often doing so while pitching on below-market value contracts. Unfortunately, right as Hand finally hits free agency, there are some potential red flags that teams are surely examining under the microscope.

Less heat, fewer grounders

Strikeouts are essential in the world of marquee relievers, and Hand still struck out 33.7% of his opponents in 2020 -- elite enough to land him in the 92nd percentile among qualified relievers. Several of his advanced metrics, in fact, looked more than healthy in the short season.

The problem is that team front offices are focused much more on the future than the present or the past when making decisions on free-agent contracts. Hand will only be 31 when the 2021 season begins, so his age isn’t exactly a deal breaker in terms of getting a multi-year contract. But clubs could be scared off by some of the metrics you see there in blue.

Hand’s fastball used to sit comfortably in the 93-94 mph range, but that velocity dipped down to 91.4 mph in 2020. The slider, his signature pitch, also came in slower at a 79.6 mph average after routinely sitting around 82 mph. So while Hand’s overall strikeout rate remained about the same this year, it’s harder to project that going forward when his whiff-per-swing rate dropped nearly six points to 24.8%, his lowest whiff rate since converting to the bullpen full-time.

Life as a reliever gets harder when you stop missing so many bats, and the other concerning factor is that he’s no longer getting the ground balls that could compensate for that increase of balls in play. After averaging a healthy 46.6% grounder rate from 2016-18, Hand got worm-burners on just 27.6% of balls in play across 2019-20.

Hand helped himself by getting opponents to swing underneath the ball and lift it too high for what Statcast classifies as “poor/under” contact about 43% of the time, a top-10 rate across MLB. But it’s a thin line to skirt between inducing harmless or disastrous air contact, and that would be a tough skill for teams to be confident in going forward. The 2020 season, short as it was, also marked the first time that Hand was a below-average pitcher in limiting barrels (the best contact for hitters), a metric with which teams are plenty familiar by now.

While appreciating Hand’s durability across the past five years, it’s hard not to worry about his parallels with another former Indians reliever. Bryan Shaw averaged 76 games per season for Cleveland from 2013-17 and was one of the sport’s best bulk relievers in that span (3.11 ERA) before he signed with the Rockies in free agency. Coors Field was probably responsible for some of his struggles since then (6.17 ERA), but his incredible workload with the Tribe might have taken its toll, too.

Well, Hand was actually on pace to throw just as many innings as Shaw did during his Cleveland peak before 2020 was cut short, and now he’s entered the free-agent market nearly a year older than Shaw when he signed with Colorado. In fact, Hand has thrown more innings since ‘16 than any other closer.

Most innings thrown since 2016
Min. 90% of games pitched in relief, 25+ saves
1) Brad Hand (FA): 320.0
2) Raisel Iglesias (CIN): 316.1
3) Blake Treinen (FA): 307.1
4) Kenley Jansen (LAD): 296.0
5) Héctor Neris (PHI): 292.0

Hand could still be a big addition

It’s not hard to follow a team's train of thought, adding up Hand’s sky-high innings count, diminished velocity and declining whiff rate and deducing that, good as he has been in recent years, he may be a risky addition moving forward. But it also feels like Hand presents an opportunity to some aggressive club out there, particularly in a saturated market that could reward teams that are able to go out and spend. Hand still handled some of the core reliever competencies very well in 2020: He struck out one-third of the hitters he faced, walked very few and, despite the increase in air contact, placed among the top 5% of qualified pitchers in Statcast’s expected ERA metric (which incorporates both the quality and amount of contact allowed).

Hand may not recoup that $10 million next year, but could he still come close to it? Even if he doesn’t stick as a full-time closer, it’s easy to see Hand filling a similar role to the one Blake Treinen served for the Dodgers as a more-than-qualified, high-leverage setup man. Outside of Liam Hendriks, Hand may still be the best reliever that money can buy this winter.