In their press release today, officially announcing the previously reported 1-year/$10.5M deal with free agent reliever Brad Hand, the Washington Nationals noted that the left-hander’s 16 saves in the 60-game COVID campaign last season were the most in the majors, and the 30-year old, who finished 2020 with a 2.05 ERA, a 1.37 FIP, four walks (1.64 BB/9), and 29 Ks (11.86 K/9) in 22 games and 23 innings pitched; holding opposing hitters to a .169/.226/.260 line, also had, “... 0.77 walks/hits per innings pitched ... and did not allow a home run.”
Hand, a 2nd Round pick by the Miami Marlins in 2008, transitioned to relief work exclusively back in 2016 in San Diego, after the Padres claimed him off waivers, and since then he, “... ranks among [the top] left-handed relievers in [terms of] strikeouts (1st, 434), saves (2nd, 104), strikeouts per 9.0 innings (4th, 12.21), WHIP (6th, 1.07) and ERA (6th, 2.70).”
That’s not all the Nationals wanted to highlight:
“Additionally, opposing left-handed batters have hit just .150 with a .237 on-base percentage and a .264 slugging percentage while right-handed batters have hit .226 with a .301 on-base percentage and a .367 slugging percentage against him over this span.”
Fangraphs offered the following assessment of Hand’s 2020 season once he became a free agent this winter, after he was placed on outright waivers, went unclaimed, and had a $10M option for 2021 declined by Cleveland (with the club opting for a $1M buyout instead) after a successful two-plus seasons with the club which saw him put up a 2.78 ERA, a 2.62 FIP, and 58 saves in 111 total appearances.
Fangraphs: “His velocity fell for the second consecutive year (it trended up throughout the season) but Hand still struck out more than 30% of opposing hitters for the fifth straight season and had a career-best 2.05 ERA and 1.37 FIP. He’s a funky, low-slot lefty who can throw his trademark curveball for strikes whenever he wants and consistently locate it just off the plate to his glove side for swings and misses.”
Hand, in a Zoom call with reporters this afternoon, acknowledged the drop in velocity over the past few seasons, and specifically in 2020, when he was asked about how he adjusted, and what he learned about himself as a pitcher as he tried to work with what he had in the truncated pandemic campaign.
“I just think I just had to be more fine,” Hand said in explaining how he adjusted.
“I wasn’t getting away with stuff middle of the plate, I had to really focus on the location and make sure I got it to the spot that I wanted to.
“Obviously, when you’ve got the velocity you can get away with a little bit more of the plate and stuff like that.”
“I felt good,” he added, “... and it just wasn’t coming out, and I was just dealing with what I had and just grinding through it and just worried on location and just getting the job done and attacking guys, like not falling behind, just put them on the defense and attack them.”
Brad Hand, 95mph Paint. ️ ️ pic.twitter.com/nRnTyqqwB0— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) July 25, 2018
Predominantly a two-pitch pitcher, with a four-seam (35.5%) and slider (he threw 50.7% of the time), Hand said he’s been focused this offseason on trying to get his velo back up to where it was previously, after he fell from an average of 92.7 MPH with his four-seamer to 91.4 MPH, and saw his slider’s velocity drop as well (81.2 down to 79.6) last season.
“I’ve been trying to get that dialed up this offseason,” Hand said.
“One of my biggest priorities this offseason is to figure out what was going different, why the velocity wasn’t there, because throughout the course of the year I felt great, it just wasn’t for some reason coming out the same that it had been. So that’s one of the main reasons I started throwing a little bit earlier, getting off the mound a little bit earlier, to try to get that back a little bit, and I think as of right now it’s pretty good, so we’ll see what happens once games start, but where I’m at right now I feel like I’m in a very good spot, we’ll see where the velo is at this year.”
The good news, of course, is that he still enjoyed success pitching with the decreased velo last season.
“I think it helped me out a lot, just being able to know that I can pitch at that range,” he told reporters today.
“Obviously I don’t want to pitch at that range, I’m trying to get that back up, but I just had to learn how to pitch more, you know what I mean, just trying to be on top of it and focus in on every pitch instead of just sometimes you’ll get ahead and just let one eat and get away with it sometimes, but just focused more on every single pitch and really bear down.”
Brad Hand, Nasty 81mph Back Foot Slider...and Sword. ⚔️ pic.twitter.com/SeUU4WQ9ZX— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) September 6, 2020
Hand’s career really took off with the move to the bullpen in 2016 in San Diego, and the new opportunity it provided allowed him to narrow his focus which made a big difference for the southpaw.
“Early in my career, when I was with Miami, I was just mostly fastball, curveball, changeup, and then 2016, when I went to San Diego it was my first full year in the bullpen, and it was my first full year throwing my slider,” Hand said.
“The end of 2015, I started tinkering around with it. My curveball was just a hard pitch to land for a strike when I needed to, so I just wanted something a little smaller breaking that was in the zone more, so I started messing around with that, and then in 2016, they put me in the bullpen and just kind of let me pitch and let me use the slider, and then obviously it turned into a real weapon for me, and I felt like it’s over the year gotten a lot better, just the way I use it and being able to backdoor it and then back foot it to right-handed hitters. I would think that’s the biggest thing.
“And then just learning the bullpen life, just being able to pitch every single day, so your routine’s got to change. Stuff like that.
“But I’d say the slider probably plays a big part into my success that I had in the bullpen.”
Brad Hand, Game ending White Castle Special.— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) August 6, 2020
Hand has been working out at Cressey Sports Performance near his home in West Palm Beach, FL, where the Nationals’ Spring Training home is conveniently located, and he’s gotten to know a few of his new teammates there with pitchers Max Scherzer, Patrick Corbin, Austin Voth, and more working out there as well, so the reliever will at least know some folks when he reports for the start of Spring Training next month.
“I know Max from down here,” he said. “I saw Corbin this morning actually in there. Voth is in there. And then there’s a bunch of minor league guys that are in the organization that are down there. It’s funny, me and Max were actually during quarantine playing catch on the side of the road down the street here. I’ve known him just from him moving down here and seeing him at the gym a little bit.”
Hand and the rest of the Nationals will get started next month, and the veteran of 10 MLB seasons said he was excited to get going with his new team.
“Obviously the offseason was kind of slow to begin with,” he said of his first experience of free agency this winter. “Over the past month it started heating up a little bit. Just a good group of guys, with the starting rotation that they have there in Washington, and then the guys that they’ve got down in the bullpen, I thought that would be a good fit for me to join those guys down there in the bullpen and be able to help out any way that I could.”
Whatever role he’s asked to fill and whatever inning he ends up pitching in, Hand said he’s willing to do what he can to help his new club.
“I’ve always been a guy that whatever I can do to help a team win, whether it’s pitching the ninth inning or the eighth inning,” he said.
“Obviously there might be situations where there’s a lot of lefties coming up to hit and it would be a better fit for me to have that inning, but always open to pitching whatever inning it may be, but these past few years I’ve been closing and I’m comfortable in that role. It’s just one of those things that with this division, the NL East, there’s lots of lefties so whatever inning I’m going to be pitching in it doesn’t necessarily matter.”