There’s something inevitable, a sense of an impossible to avoid tragedy looming, about a closer going a whole season without blowing a save like Cleveland’s Brad Hand did in 2020.
Going through a season untouched is always the goal but when it happens, it feels like another shoe just needs to drop at some point. Only eleven closers have recorded 15 or more saves without blowing a single one in the history of Major League Baseball. All save one had to endure an entire 162-game season, so Eric Gagne’s 55 in 2003, Jose Valverde in 2011, or Zach Britton’s 47 in 2016 are certainly more of a feat than Hand’s 16 slammed doors. But one firm thing they, and most all who navigated a season without collapsing save Brad Lidge in 2008, have in common is their season ended in disappointment. Often, in infamy. Whether a collapse like Valverde, watching helplessly from the bullpen like Britton, or just losing the zone at just the wrong time like Hand, tragedy revealed itself and the last image we have of these once unblemished hurlers is one of defeat, of powerlessness.
It was a sour end for Hand, after season that was a pleasant surprise, all things considered. The big talk around him from about August 2019 on was that the velocity, already barely above average, was fading, and with it his effectiveness. His one-two punch of fastball and huge, sweeping slider was dazzling when it worked, but after a second half in 2019 that saw his ERA leap from 2.17 to 5.40 and his K/BB ratio drop from 5.4 to 3.6 along with his velocity slipping below 92 by the end of September, there was every reason to worry. His barely tickling 91 in the spring didn’t help either. Between James Karinchak flashing his madman velocity and this fading, the writing looked to be carved into the wall for Hand.
Baseball being what it is though, even if you’re a young guy winking at 100 mph and have a curve that falls off the table, you have to “earn it”. So, Hand got the chance to hold onto his role as closer and took full advantage of it. His first outing against a struggling Royals squad saw him strike out two on 20 pitches and earn a save. Things looked good, and though he coughed up a run his next time out against the White Sox, he again recorded two K’s and a save.
Then the bottom seemed to fall out, as he came in with a scoreless tie in the ninth and commenced to collapse. He allowed four runs, three earned, walked one, and earned a big stinky L. The velocity was down. The command was gone. You could hear the calls of “Bring out your dead!” in the distance. Surely, everyone agreed, this was it. There’s no space for a struggling closer, not in just 60 games.
Hand disagreed. In a very much “I’m not dead!” statement, he just got good. He would allow just one more earned run the rest of the year, and because the save is a stupid stat, that loss he earned against Chicago didn’t matter to how he was regarded. After all, he only had the one job — save games, right? Either way, he was untouchable, logging 19.1 more innings, striking out 25, and giving up just ten hits and three walks. As the rotation came together, as the bullpen coalesced behind him, Hand was the backstop supporting all of it. I’m not going to sit here and say he felt automatic throughout the year, but between the defense behind him taking care of him and a hefty dose of luck, he entered the playoffs without a blown save.
Which, as we know, he took care of as soon as he got a chance. Cleveland was abruptly and unceremoniously swept in the Wild Card round, Hand going ⅔ of an inning after loading the bases and getting yanked. That was it. That’s how a wonderful season ended. With a thump.
That shouldn’t take away from a really tremendous season though. Karinchak was definitely a better pitcher than Hand this year, but maybe it helped Cleveland to be able to use him as a fireman, and Hand just knocked out the last inning. It’s a recipe that worked for the team in 2016 with Cody Allen and Andrew Miller — though interestingly, the repertoires of the two pairs of pitchers were reversed — and it allowed for everything else to kind of slot into place. With Sandy Alomar having to sit in for Terry Francona for most of the season, maybe that helped the interim manager to calm any jitters he might have had and gave him a shorter list of decisions to have to make.
It’s entirely likely this was the last we saw of Brad Hand as a Cleveland Indian. His club option is only $10 million, but with the way the team is talking about payroll, that much for a reliever when you have Karinchak, Emmanuel Clase returning, and guys like Cal Quantrill to fill in other roles just doesn’t make sense. In an ideal world they’d re-sign him, have him continue to pitch like a god and hoodwink some fringe contender for some decent prospects, but there’s too much variability in that. So, our memories have to stay with his having one of the better runs as a relief pitcher in recent history, and giving everyone exciting, but ultimately happy, ends to games all season.
He was very good, one of the better at that job in the game in 2020 and locked down the win when he got the opportunity. There’s not much more you can ask for from a reliever, no matter how tragic the ending.