There seems to be a standstill in the left-handed market. Although pitchers like Taylor Rogers and Matt Strahm have signed contracts, others like Andrew Chafin, Matt Moore and Zack Britton are still out there. The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal recently wrote about the situation, listing 10 clubs interested in this trio of available left-handers. However, it means at least seven clubs will miss out on this group and will have to consider other options, one of which is this brad hand.
Hand, aged 33 in March, has had a dominant run for the second half of the last decade but seems to have aged into a different breed of pitcher in recent years. From 2016-2020, he made 306 appearances with a 2.70 ERA, hitting 33.3% of clubs while walking 8.1%, and hitting ground balls with a solid clip of 41.2%. That strikeout rate ranked third, only behind, among relievers with at least 250 innings during that tenure Edwin Diaz and Kenley Jansen.
Those punchouts escaped him in 2021 when his rate plummeted to 21.9%. He kept his ERA at a respectable 3.90 throughout the season, although clearly not at the same level as in previous years. He signed with the Phillies for 2022 and saw his rate stats headed in the wrong direction, albeit with better results overall. He pitched 45 innings last year, defeating just 19.2% of opponents and walking 11.6% of them. However, he found ways to limit the overall damage and ended the year with a 2.80 ERA.
Whether this damage control was skill or luck is debatable. Hand’s batting average on balls in play last year was 2.71, slightly better than his career mark of .284 and last year’s league average of .289. Similarly, his failure rate, which was 75.9% last year, is just above the league average of 72.6% and his career rate of 73.6%. That might hint at a bit of luck, and advanced metrics agreed that hand deserved worse, such as. 3.93 FIP, 4.40 xERA and 4.51 SIERA. He also allowed just two homers that year to repeat a difficult feat.
But it seems like Hand is doing something to throw the hitters off balance. Out of the 444 pitchers with 100 or more batted ball events in the last year, Hand ranked 93rd with an average exit speed of 87.2 mph. His barrels per BBE rate was 88th, barrels per plate appearance was 77th, while his 26.9% hard hit rate was fourth. In this latter category, he just lagged behind Lucas Lütge, Brusdar Graterol and Kaleb Thielbarand was just ahead Devin Williams, Jason Adam, Ryan Tepera and Tyler Anderson.
This could all depend on its slider, which is its primary pitch. According to Statcast data, he has thrown more pitches than anyone else in every season since 2017. He used to get huge swing-and-miss numbers from it, with a hover rate of over 40% for three straight years from 2017 to 2019. However, that dropped to 38.6% in 2020 and then to 27.9% and 22% in the last two seasons. However, that lack of touch hasn’t translated into more significant contact. The pitch had a 29.5% hard hit rate in 2019, but he brought that down to 16.9% in 2022. Opponents hit just .222 against the pitch last year and hit .321, with hand the slider 52.1% the time used.
It’s perhaps a function of the diminished power he has on the court, which he threw in the 81-85 mph range from 2016-2019 but has been closer to 79-80 for the past three years. It also has slightly less spin as it increased its RPM to 2629 in 2017 but has dropped in subsequent years with the 2022 spin rate being 2282 RPM. That has resulted in fewer missing bats, but batsmen don’t do much damage when they make contact.
Of course, with fewer puffs, the hand contact rate has increased in equal measure. While batters signed 71% of their pitches from 2016-2020, it’s been 81.7% over the past two years. But it seems like this extra contact is coming from outside the attacking zone. His Z contact rate was 82.4% in those prime years and increased to 87% in the last two years. But his out-of-zone pitch O-Contact rate has risen to 71% over the past two seasons, from 53.6% in his peak years. Hitters swing a little less on the out-of-zone courts, which correlates with Hand’s increased walk rate over the past year, but it’s possible for hitters to convert some of Hand’s breaths into weak contact.
What teams need to decide is whether Hand made this happen or just got away with something. He’s been working with reduced material in recent years but found ways to avoid disaster with those 3.90 ERA in 2021 and 2.80 last year. Pitching to contact is a risky endeavor, but Hand has found ways to make it work. The upcoming ban on defensive changes could theoretically make it even riskier, although Hand has pitched just 20.8% of the time in front of a postponed defensive end last year, below the league average of 33.6%. When metrics like FIP, xERA, and SIERA agree, regression is due, but he’s now kept his ERA below those numbers for two straight years. Perhaps he would be best suited for a club that has strong faith in its defense and pitcher-friendly ballpark, with the Cardinals jumping out as a good complement. But his market has been quiet this winter and spring training starts in just over a week.