Brad Hand, after giving up a one-out, line drive double and a two-out, two-run home run in Friday night’s game against the Baltimore Orioles, had allowed runs in six of eight trips to the mound, with home runs hit off him in three of the last four appearances by the 31-year-old Washington Nationals’ closer. Looking at the numbers, Hand appears to be doing what he’s done over the past few years in establishing himself as one of the games more reliable late-inning arms.
His slider and four-seam fastball, which account for 88% of his pitch selection, (with a sinker mixed in 11.6% of the time, and a curve he uses sparingly, 0.7%, just two so far in 2021), have ticked up in terms of velocity from where he was in 2020’s 60-game campaign, and even a bit from this spring. There are no notable changes in the spin rate on any of his pitches.
Hand had held hitters to a .115 AVG on his slider through Friday night, down from .139 in ‘20, but hitters had a .261 AVG on his four-seamer, which was up from .156 last year, and his walks were up early, with seven in 15 1⁄3 IP (10.3% BB%, which was up from a career average of 8.4% so far and 4.7% in 2020).
What is Washington’s skipper Davey Martinez seeing from Hand when the lefty is on the hill?
“We’re actually doing some work right now,” the fourth-year skipper said before Saturday’s game against the O’s in the nation’s capital.
“Last night, I asked our analytical people to kind of give me a breakdown on everything. For me, with the naked eye, he’s been throwing the ball a lot more up. And as you know, he’s a two-seam guy, that throws the ball down. Also too, when he’s really good, he pounds the strike zone in a lot, a lot of his balls have actually been sinking and trying to go away, so we’re going to take a look at all of the numbers and look at his spin rate and everything else and see what we come up with today.”
Martinez spent some time after Hand’s appearance in Friday’s series opener with the Orioles looking back to see what he could pick up.
“I tried to sit down here last night and watch his mechanics and everything like that,” he told reporters, “... and everything seems about the same.
“So we’ll try to pinpoint it, try to help him out as much as we can.
“He’s another guy that’s done it for many, many years, he understands him, and he’s going to come in today and tell me that, hey, he’s ready to go, he’s good to go.
“The good news is that there’s nothing wrong with him physically. Like I said, his arm is good, he’s topping out at 94 [MPH], you know, our concern in Spring Training was that he was only at 90-91, now he’s up to steady at 92-93, and every now and then 94, so that’s good news for us that physically he feels fine.”
Having a struggling closer makes for difficult decisions when you want to get him straight, and want him on the mound in save situations, but Martinez said he’s sticking with Hand in spite of his recent struggles.
“He’s our guy right now, and what [Daniel Hudson] has done for us in the seventh or eighth has been unbelievable.
“He’s a guy that — to get to that closer’s spot, he shuts the door down.
“I don’t want to mess with that, knowing that Huddy really likes — if we need four or five outs, he’s the guy. And he’s prepared for that. I don’t want to start messing with Hand, because Hand has been a guy that’s closed games, and like I said, it’s nothing physical with him. If it was something physical then we would definitely would want to do something else, but it could be maybe tweaking something, or just getting actually his location a little bit better, and things of that nature. Like I said, I had our guys do a bunch of work, I’m waiting for it to come down, and hopefully we can pinpoint something for him and help him out as much as we can.”
Adding to the intrigue, is the fact that Hand came out of the gate strong, with seven innings to start the season in which he didn’t give up a run, before things started went pear-shaped in six of his last eight appearances.
“He was good,” Martinez said, “... and like I said, for me a lot of the stuff - the situation that he’s been put in — I know he’s a closer, but you know sometimes it’s tie game, sometimes we were up a run, and when you’re constantly doing that — like I said, when we were in New York, and I’m watching, he made some pretty good pitches, jammed some pretty good hitters and they were able to get hits. That’s unfortunate.
“Yesterday he fell behind and threw a ball pretty much right down the middle and the guy took him deep.
“He threw one ball that was up, and the guy hit it hard. But these are things that I think that we can fix just by getting him honed in on his location and getting him to start throwing the ball down, a little more down.
“The pitch that he threw in Chicago to get that last out, 3-2, that’s the Hand that we all know. That ball started in and ended up pretty much over the plate, and it’s a tough pitch to hit. So if we can get him back to that, he’s going to be in great shape.”
Martinez also wondered if the start and stop nature of the start of Hand’s 2021 campaign is a factor in his struggles, after the southpaw ended up on the COVID-IL before the opener.
“He’s another guy that started the season out on the contact tracing list, so he — and he came back and like I said, he did some really good things for us, and I look at it, it could be a period where, maybe like I said, just like hitters, you hit that little funk and then you get out of it.
“We’re hoping that’s true for him, but for me right now, the way he’s throwing the ball, and like I said, his velo and everything, when I’m looking at it, everything looks kind of normal, but I would love for him to attack the strike zone, down, down, think down all the time, because he’s another guy that even though he’s not striking guys out, he gets ground balls.
“That’s who he was before. If we can get him to do that, our defense will play behind him.”
Also his ground ball% (46.3%) is up significantly from what he finished with in 2019 (27.9%), and 2020 (26.5%), so you figure it out...
NOTE: Hand got the ball in the top of the ninth on Saturday and retired the Orioles in order in a 12-pitch, nine-strike inning, with two groundouts around a backwards K.
“His breaking ball was definitely a lot sharper today,” Martinez said. “He kind of shortened up his leg kick a little bit, which was able to get him on top of the ball a little bit better. He was really good today, so that’s awesome, that’s good to see, like I said, I feel really comfortable with Huddy and him coming in in the eighth and ninth every night, so we get those guys going, we give them the ball ahead, and I feel really good about it.”