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Indians need to rethink Brad Hand as their closer

Closer by committee could be best for this strange season

Cleveland Indians v Pittsburgh Pirates Photo by Justin Berl/Getty Images

Brad Hand is a three-time All-Star. He has 44 saves in just 91 appearances with Cleveland. His FIP since coming over from San Diego is 2.95. By any measure, he has been a fantastic addition for the Tribe. What happened Wednesday night against the White Sox is a aberration, the exception that proves the rule.

At least until it isn’t.

At 30, Hand is far from washed up and ineffective as a pitcher. He shares bullpen space with Oliver Pérez, proof that relievers can maintain lengthy careers. But the guy he took over the closer role from, Cody Allen, is just a year older and currently without a team, proof that relief arms can be fickle. It’s not fair to compare Hand to either Pérez or Allen, because they each have different strengths and weaknesses, but if we drill down on Hand’s skills we see some concerning signs.

Of course, the 2020 sample is miniscule, but it continues a trend that was evident last year as well. Hand’s velocity is at its lowest since the 2018 trade that brought him to Cleveland. His four-seam fastball, which he uses 36% of the time, is sitting a 90.8 mph this season, down 1.9 mph from 2019 and 3 mph from 2018. Likewise, his sinker, more seldom used (13%), is at 91 mph, which is a 2.3 mph decrease since 2018. His most dangerous weapon, the slider he utilizes 50% of the time, is also lagging in velocity, at 79.5 mph, a 2.5-mph drop since 2018. Similarly concerning, Hand’s slider has lost more than 200 rpm over the last two seasons (2,357 vs. 2,584 for 2020 and 2018, respectively).

Those decreases in velocity and spin rate have resulted in differences in efficiency, as batters have started to find success against Hand. In 2017, with the Padres, batters had a wOBA of just .177 against the slider; in 2018 that increased to .234 and in 2019 it inched up to .243. In the short amount of time Hand’s pitched this season, hitters have a wOBA of .468 against his slider. As a putaway pitch, the slider has also fallen off. In 2017 it produced a strikeout 32% of the time when thrown with two strikes, in 2018 it produced a strikeout 30.1% of the time, and in 2019 it produced a strikeout 28.9% of the time; this year, however, it’s striking out batters just 22.2% of the time. All of which has caused his ERA- and FIP- to increase precipitously.

Again, it’s important to stress that Hand’s 2020 is just a tiny sliver of a sample, just 14 batters faced, so small that it is foolish to draw sweeping conclusions from. But the trends from previous seasons are not that optimistic. Moreover, the entirety of the 2020 season (however long it lasts — looking at you, Marlins) is going to be a small sample.

You’ve probably heard the 2020 season called a sprint about a million times now, but I think the more accurate comparison is to a really long playoff. Every team benefits from having an expanded playoff field, but consider that the season is already 10% gone and it really throws things into perspective. If Hand is trending the wrong way, there’s no reason not to manage the bullpen like the playoffs are upon us, which is something Terry Francona certainly knows how to do.

Where Francona has proven his ability to smartly manage a bullpen during a playoff run, he’s done even more to prove that he loves expanded rosters. Right now, every team has 30 players, and Cleveland has eight men in the bullpen and another five potential relievers ready to go in the player pool at any point. The Tribe can cycle through relievers and play the matchups as much as the new three-batter minimum will allow.

Thus, what is the point of saving a potentially diminished Brad Hand for the most high-leverage moments? Pérez is still elite against lefties, Adam Cimber is a ground ball machine, James Karinchak has stuff for days, Cam Hill looks like he might be the real deal, and so on. Facing a minimum of three batters will make things a bit more challenging in terms of bullpen management, but with each game mattering a little more, now is the time for Francona to prove how good a manager he is. And that could mean Hand-ing off the ninth inning to committee (pun, obviously, intended).