On June 24, Brad Hand entered a game against the Kansas City Royals in the top of the tenth inning to hold a 2-2 lead. Cam Gallagher struck out, Billy Hamilton popped out and Whit Merrifield flew out with a 46-degree launch angle and an .010 xBA.
Brad Hand, sporting a 1.05 ERA and 1.55 FIP on the year, had done his job again. In the bottom half, Jason Kipnis walked things off with a homer off of Wily Peralta.
Since, Hand has allowed 15 earned runs in 16.2 innings, including a run or more in the last four games entering Thursday. That run was capped off Wednesday night with an embarrassing string of events that involved Hand not covering first base on a potential game-ending double play, then throwing the ball away on a dribbler from Wilson Ramos.
The seemingly unflappable closer, renowned for his basement-level heart rate, certainly showed cracks mentally. Finally with a reasonable window, the cynics have directed their Facebook rants towards the three-time All-Star.
Even with over a month’s worth of trouble since that 1-2-3 win on June 24, Hand is still sporting the best single-season FIP (2.62) and K% (35.4) of his career, and second-best K/BB (4.75).
Miraculously, things should be much, much worse for the lefty, whose .365 BABIP is seventh-worst among qualified relievers, and third-worst among those with 51-or-more innings.
While that BABIP is an outlier from his career .288 mark, that is not to say that it tells the whole story. Hand has been hit hard, and naturally, better-hit balls will produce a higher average, especially when weeding out the three true outcomes, of which the southpaw produces plenty.
It is very possible that the entire season is an outlier for Hand, not just that BABIP. The 29-year-old’s hard-hit rate has jumped to 40.8%, also the highest of his career by 8.6%. His FB% has not been above 40% since his disastrous first two seasons with the Marlins, when it sat at 54.4% in 2011, and 50% over 3.2 innings a year later. Sitting at 42.9% in 2019, his LD% has jumped from 20.6% to 32.8%, while his GB% has plummeted from 45.2% to a career-low 24.4%.
Those numbers indicate Hand’s pitches have just become more hittable, whether because of predictability or location.
There is not much in Hand’s numbers to indicate that there has been a tremendous, league-wide shift in plate approach against him, outside of a career-high 48.1% swing-rate, compared to a career average of 44.2%.
That being said, when Hand makes a mistake, hitters are pouncing. According to Statcast, while Hand’s meatball percentage is 7.7% compared to 7.3% on average, hitters have swung at 81.5% of those pitches down broadway, up from a 71.1% mark in the Statcast area.
Sounds like Hand is not fooling anyone.
Somewhere along the way, Hand seemed to have lost faith in his fastball.
That green line marks June 25, the day Hand allowed five earned without retiring a Royal, right as the hard-hit rate peaks, and as the four-seam usage continues to dip.
It was for good reason that Hand may have gotten away from his heater. Opposing hitters have already posted 25 hits against the pitch in 2019, more than any season in his career dating back to 2015. That can be explained by its 45%(!) line-drive rate against.
Hand is throwing his best pitch, that slider, at an especially elevated rate, and hitters are waiting for it. Over the course of the season, the lefty has allowed 20 hits off of his slider, and 15 have come since June 25 against the Royals. Of those 25 hits off of the fastball, only 11 have come since that day.
By slowly eliminating his fastball, Hand has essentially become a one-pitch pitcher. The sudden success against him seemed to have gotten to him when he began relying on his one pitch. Now that the approach is not working, the unflappable closer could be in his own head.