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Brad Hand’s strong start to 2019 kept Indians afloat

... and his poor second half may have doomed them

Kansas City Royals v Cleveland Indians Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images

We’re counting down to our top-10 best Indians players of 2019 as voted on by the Let’s Go Tribe staff. Follow along here, and keep reading until October 26 when the team MVP is revealed.

When you think of the Indians’ rough start this season, what comes to mind?

Try to push past the searing pain of 30% of a lineup occupied by Max Moroff, Eric Stamets, and the shambling remains of Hanley Ramírez. Think about the few games they actually managed to win before the Twins started to rocket off into the stars above.

If you can manage it, you’re probably picturing Brad Hand as the lone symbol of stability during a rough — rough — month of baseball. He tapered off towards the end of the season, to say the least, but enough can’t be said about Brad Hand’s first half of 2019 and how it might have helped keep things interesting longer than they had any right to be.

Hand entered the season preparing for his first full year with the Tribe, after coming over from San Diego halfway through last season. In that half-season with the Tribe, Hand put up would-be career numbers over a full year: 2.28 ERA, 35.7% strikeout rate, 51 ERA-. Could he possibly be better than he was in those 27.2 innings?

Yes. For a while, anyway.

From his first appearance on March 28 through June 24, he allowed just four earned runs in 34.1 innings of work, alongside 19 hits and just one home run. He walked only eight batters and struck out 50. He went 10 consecutive outings without allowing a single run — twice. By all accounts he was phenomenal, and for a time, the Indians’ only bright spot.

With a near-even mix of his fastball (47.5%) and seemingly unhittable slider (52.5%), Hand kept opposing hitters off balance on his way to his third All-Star game.

And then the rest of the season happened.

On June 25, Hand was hammered by the Royals for five runs and he didn’t record a single out. From that point forward, he had a 6.65 ERA and allowed five home runs in 23.0 innings pitched. After not allowing more than one run to cross the plate in any single game through the first part of the season, he allowed multiple runs to score five times between June 25 and his final outing on September 21.

He slowly moved away from his fastball, leaning on his slider 55.9% of the time as the value of the pitch plummeted to -4.4, according to FanGraphs’ pitch value.

Hand’s arm was supposedly the cause of the issues, though the Indians never really seemed to nail down what was wrong with him. Not publicly, anyway. At one point he wasn’t available for a start and even the beat writers were caught off guard by his absence. It wasn’t until after the game we learned that he would be day-to-day with a “tired arm”.

Overall, it was a weird season for Brad Hand, but one that should be remember in history as being good by most standards. If the Indians had done the impossible and won the AL Central by a few games over the Twins, it would be easier to ignore his second-half struggles and focus on those handful of fantastic innings early in the season.

As it is, as with most things this season, we’ll be left wondering “what if”.