When Bryce Harper was injured and forced onto the injured list, there was a sense around the fanbase that it was the death knell for the team. While the offense might be able to hold things down for a bit, the Achilles’ heel of the offseason, the bullpen, would surely hinder them from advancing onto the playoffs.
Lo and behold, the bullpen has actually be a strength of the team, led by Seranthony Dominguez’s excellence, Jose Alvarado’s resurgence, Connor Brogdon’s steadiness and...
Signed to a one-year deal in the offseason, Hand was looked at as someone who might provide some veteran leadership in the bullpen, maybe get some left handers out, something that the team hasn’t had much of in the past. His 2021 season was bumpy, to put it kindly. While in Washington to start the season he was throwing more or less average to a bit above, once traded to Toronto, he was horrendous, allowing 10 runs in only 8 2⁄3 innings north of the border. He was so bad there, the Blue Jays placed on waivers simply to be rid of him, where he was claimed by the Mets, put into lower leverage situations and fared much better. Perhaps due to this inconsistency, Hand was only able to secure the one-year deal in Philadelphia, but he has more than held up his end of the bargain, but how he is doing it is somewhat mysterious.
Usually when you look to see why a pitcher’s surface level numbers are so good, such as Hand’s current 1.86 ERA, one looks below a bit to see if that number is earned. Brief glances across his Baseball Reference page point to a 3.41 FIP thanks to a strikeout rate below 20% and a walk rate above 12%. That’s gonna make things a little more suspect, causing an eyebrow to be raised a bit more, so the dig continues.
How is Brad Hand having such a successful season?
One might suspect that the team is hiding him a bit, letting him feast on the soft underbelly of opposing lineups, when games are out of...ahem...hand, but that isn’t the case at all. His 1.50 aLI (average leverage index) shows that the team really has no issue putting him into tight spots if need be. He can pitch effectively when the game is on the line or he can pitch effectively when he simply needs to get work in. So now we continue on to look at his stuff. Is it getting better this year? If so, how has it gotten better?
Glancing at his Baseball Savant page, one might come away unimpressed. All of the good stuff that makes up a good reliever these days - fastball velocity, spin, chase rates - all of them are down, some significantly down, from last season.
Now, there is some encouragement in these numbers in that you see a lot of the bad things - barrel rate, hard hit rate, slugging, wOBA - are down from last season, but that should come with a bit of an asterisk. He was so bad last year that he had nowhere else to go but down.
No, the thing that is strange is that he’s giving up more contact this year, getting fewer whiffs, yet is still finding success.
Prior to Monday night, Hand hadn’t given up a homerun on the season, but that is by the wayside now. But looking at all of this information, it’s kind of a wonder that Hand has been as good as he has been.
His usage patterns suggest that he is using his slider quite a bit more often than he did last year, getting back to his pre-2021 levels when he was one of the better, more underrated relievers in the game.
It’s not even as though Hand’s slider has been a dominant pitch either. Among relievers who have thrown at least 30 innings, the pitch is kind of just middle of the road in terms of how effective it has been this year.
So, if there was an answer to the question posed at the beginning of how is Hand doing it this year, the answer is probably: I don’t know. There’s probably a good mixture of deception, skill, and good old luck involved. It would be easy to dismiss his season as one that has been lucky, but he’s been pretty good all season, so that is a cheap way out. But there really doesn’t seem to be a specific reason why Hand has been so effective, at least in the way where you could point to Seranthony Dominguez using a two season fastball more, Jose Alvarado leaning on his cutter more, etc. Maybe Hand is just having a good season and that is all we can say. Nothing wrong with that.
We just need him to keep it up a little while longer.