Inside the Struggles of Brad Hand

Brad Hand has been one of the best closers in Major League Baseball through most of this 2019 season. His late-game performances prevented the Cleveland Indians from falling too far behind the Minnesota Twins early on this season. He was a perfect 22-22 on save opportunities before blowing his first save in late June against the Kansas City Royals. Now, with the Indians going back and forth with the Twins for first place in the AL Central, Hand has experienced a few hiccups.

Recent Meltdowns

Half of his blown saves this year have come on back to back nights, both in crucial games. A Sunday crowd at Target Field in Minnesota saw Hand blow a 3-1 lead (get those 3-1 jokes out now), only for Carlos Santana to bail him out in extra innings with a grand slam. A loss here would have put the Indians two games behind the Twins in the Central. Instead, they left Minneapolis with a share of the divisional lead.

The very next night back home against the Boston Red Sox, misfortune struck Hand again. Holding a 5-4 lead, Xander Bogaerts doubled to right-center field, scoring Mookie Betts and tying the game at 5. Santana would play hero again, however, smashing a 2-2 pitch over the left-field wall for a walk-off home run. “Slamtana” is due much gratitude from Hand.

Numbers Game

Why the recent struggles from the Tribe closer? Consecutive bad nights have Cleveland natives fearful of another Andrew Miller type situation. The St. Louis Cardinals lefty was dynamite for the Indians in 2016, especially throughout the postseason. Miller’s ERA climbed from a 1.45 at the end of the 2016 season to a 4.24 by the time his 2018 campaign finished. He struggled mightily in the Houston Astros sweep of Cleveland in the 2018 ALDS, and the Indians let him walk in the offseason.

The numbers for Hand certainly do not reflect a Miller-like meltdown quite yet. His ERA, SO/9, and BB/9 have all improved since last year, a great sign for any reliever. Looking at his profile on baseballsavant.mlb.com will reflect setbacks in other areas for Hand this year.

Sinking Ship

One thing you will notice is the near disappearance of his sinker this year. He uses it just 3.6% of the time, as opposed to 15.5% in ‘18. Opponents hit .324 off that pitch last season, leading to more fastballs and sliders this year. Unfortunately for Hand, opposing teams are still mashing that pitch, hitting Hand’s sinker for a .400 batting average.

Let’s look at the fastball and slider, Hand’s most effective pitches (and the only other two he throws). Opposing batting averages are well up against both. Why is this? Again, going back to Baseball Savant, his pitches are simply not moving as effectively. Let’s look at the loss of movement with some of Hand’s pitches this year.

* = more movement this year

Pitch TypeVertical Drop (inches)- 2018Horizontal Break (inches)- 2018Spin Rate- 2018Vertical Drop (inches)- 2019Horizontal Break (inches)- 2019Spin Rate- 2019
Fastball18.110.5*247617.211.3*2424
Sinker28.216.5*233424.516.6*2297
Slider49.417.7258446.016.22481

Numbers courtesy of baseballsavant.mlb.com

As mentioned earlier, opposing batters are hitting Hand’s sinker even better this year. The same can be said for his other two pitches. In the last year, batting average against his fastball jump from .202 to .262, and .158 to .177 on his slider.

Less Dribblers, More Barrels

Another light to be shed on Hand’s struggles is how hard opponents are hitting him. Fangraphs “Hard%” metric sees batters hitting 40.9% “hard” batted balls off Hand’s stuff compared to 31.6% last season. Baseball Savant’s site reflects similar percentages with their metric. They also have opponent’s exit velocity rising from 84.9 to 88.3 over the last year off Hand.

Finally, opponents are focusing on launch angle when facing Hand. Baseball Savant has opposing launch angles at 22.3 degrees, over double the 11.0 degrees batters posted in 2018. In the last year, flyball percentage has increased over 10% while ground balls are 20% less frequent according to Fangraphs.

Don’t Panic… Yet

While Cleveland fans have no reason to panic just yet, signs of decline are showing for Brad Hand. The Indians will need high-level play from their bullpen and closer if they hope to make a deep October run, and Hand will need to be the guy to steer that ship. Manager Terry Francona will have to manage his innings well to keep him as fresh as possible for the postseason.

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