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What happened to Brad Hand?

His 2021 wasn’t good, but only really in Toronto was he BAD bad. What happened?

Kansas City Royals v Toronto Blue Jays Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images

When you think of the Phillies’ bullpen, you’re probably similar to me in thinking “oneyearsixmillion” since that seems to be the default offer faxed to all players in free agency. It’s strange that this is the third such deal in two seasons the Phillies have signed a pitcher to, but hey - at least it’s working.

Brad Hand is the latest incarnation of The Six Million Dollar Man, but a cursory glance at his season last year might make you think he was more Lee Majors than Steve Austin. The beginning of the season started out fine in Washington, but some warning flags were there that something was amiss. Pretty much everything has gone backwards over the past several years in categories you really don’t want to go backwards in. Outside of 2020, where he was great, everything has been getting worse. (Sidenote: I get kind of throwing out stats for players from that year, but what about relievers? Their sample sizes are usually small over a season anyway. Why should 2020 be different if that entire year was a small sample size? I digress...) His strikeout rate plummeted, his walk rate rose and everything else was just....bleh.

However...

Ben Clemens of Fangraphs had this to say about Hand in his review of the deal:

What went wrong? At the risk of oversimplifying, he stopped fooling hitters. Hand drew chases on 24% of his out-of-zone sliders in 2021, a career low. He drew chases on 13.9% of his out-of-zone fastballs, also a career low. I’m not exactly sure what you can do to fix that – Hand’s game simply feeds on chases, and his low-90s fastball isn’t the kind of pitch he can blow by hitters when he has to challenge them.

What’s the solution? Essentially, he has to paint the corners with his fastball, and he mysteriously lost that ability in 2021. He hit the shadow zone – the area around the edges of the plate on both sides – with his fastball at a career-low rate, which meant it was usually either a clear ball or clear strike, both bad outcomes for him.

What I want to focus on is that fastball: not particular how bad it is, but how the team can better use it.

If you think of Hand like I do, you think about sliders. Lots and lots of sliders. It was the pitch that is/was his bread and butter and in his dominant times, it was the pitch he used most often. Last year, though, he got away from it. Check out this pitch usage chart:

The past few years, Hand has been increasing his fastball usage, sinker or four-seam, in favor of a decrease in the slider. Last year, he used that slider only 42.1% of the time, lowest since 2016. The strange thing is that what he should be doing is trying to maintain that 50% average of using the pitch, not getting away from it.

If we use Baseball Savant, we can see how good pitches are based on Run Value. A negative number is obviously very good since that pitch is preventing runs, while a positive number is bad since it’s allowing them (read more about it here). One thing that stands out is that his usages, as you can see changed, but he wasn’t using them smartly. From 2020-2021:

  • slider: usage down 8%, RV/100 from -2.1 to -0.7
  • four-seam fastball: usage up 6%, RV/100 from -1.1 to 0.7
  • sinker: usage up 4%, RV/100 from -2.4 to 1.9

Why was he using his worse pitches more than his better pitch?

As Clemens says in the above analysis, hitters weren’t chasing his slider as much last year, so it probably forced him to abandon his slider more in favor of getting strikes with his fastball. The best way to check that is by looking specifically at pitch usage by game.

There isn’t a whole lot of change here, but there is a slight downward trend as the year goes on. If we work with the theory that batters weren’t chasing his slider as much as the reason for this downturn, we’ll that becomes a bit muddier.

The idea that hitters weren’t chasing his slider as much does have some merit, which might explain a bit of his horrors in Toronto, but in the middle of the season, there was a big jump back to hitters going after it. It makes you wonder what exactly was happening.

Some of it is probably that his fastball simply isn’t good enough combined with his throwing it too much, some of it might be due to the randomness that inhibits relievers. The likelier culprit, and the more damning one, is that hitters just aren’t swinging and missing as much as they used to.

This is the probably cause to why Hand struggled and the one piece of evidence that the signing has more bust potential than booming. If these trends continue where Hand is no longer fooling batters with his pitches, it’s hard to determine what a solution could be. The best one would be to stop throwing the pitch that fools hitters the least so much. If he wants to stand much of a chance, he’d be better off leaning into a higher slider usage than anything. Mixing in the sinker/four-seamer a little less would make him more of a southpaw Sergio Romo, but Romo has had some success in the past few years. It could be the solution Hand is looking forward to stem the tide of ineffectiveness.

If anything, this evidence might define Hand’s role a little bit more for Joe Girardi. It would behoove him to avoid using Hand in high leverage situations, instead handing off those tough left-left matchups to <gulp> Jose Alvarado. Hand might be better served as someone to get those outs that are needed in the 5th/6th innings as opposed to the 8th/9th.

Which of course means that’s exactly when Girardi will use him because veterans.