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Mea culpa, Brad Hand

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Hand has turned things around and strengthened his grip on the ninth

MLB: Cleveland Indians at Kansas City Royals Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

Back on July 30, I took to these digital pages to criticize Brad Hand. Alright, I maybe went a bit beyond criticism. I wrote that he was trending the wrong way, that he was diminished. I had the stats to back it up, so I can’t say I was wrong, but I can say that since July 30 Hand has proven my assumptions wrong.

From the second half of 2019 to July 30 of this year, Hand had a 4.33 FIP and walked 8.3% while allowing opponents a slash line of .312/.393/.516. In just 12.1 innings since (a tiny sample, but stay with me) his FIP is a minuscule 1.48, he’s lowered his walk rate to 6.7%, and opponents are hitting .146/.204/.195 against him.

So, to Brad Hand, I offer a mea culpa.

In my July article, I pointed out the fact that Hand’s velocity was at its lowest since he came to Cleveland, wondering out loud if that was the cause of his decline. Well, as you can see in the velocity graph below, that trend continues; however, as seen in the second graph, the effect on his ERA- and FIP- has not continued and the trend has reversed.

So, what has caused the positive regression? Compared with the second half of 2019 to July 30 of this year, Hand has limited the amount of pulled balls and the amount of hard hit balls. Specifically, he’s gone from 48.4% to 42.3% pulled and 48.4% to 30.8% hard hit. As seen in his zone profiles below, he’s still burying a plurality of his pitches down and in to right-handed hitters; however, compared with the second half of 2019 to July 30 of this year, he is now working a little more middle-in and middle-down. Perhaps it is locating the ball differently that is making him more effective and has helped him allow just two extra-base hits since the beginning of August.

Whatever it is that is helping Hand rediscover his form, it has made him a lock at the backend of the bullpen. And, unlike I asserted previously, I think it’s fine that he has a deathgrip on the ninth inning. With a makeshift managerial team, which was not the case in July, knowing who to turn to — and having a reliable option — for the ninth is quite valuable.

Moreover, one of the most valuable relievers in baseball has emerged in the earlier innings, reducing some of the burden on Hand. James Karinchak has produced 0.8 fWAR so far, fourth in the majors, by limiting opponents to a .164/.269/.224 slashline with just 3.3% of balls barreled while keeping his FIP at a paltry 1.43.

Just by virtue of pitching the ninth, Hand has more high-leverage innings than Karinchak in 2020. But pitching the ninth does not mean that he has faced the best opposing hitters. By using Karinchak in a role like 2016 Andrew Miller, Cleveland has reaped the benefits of his ridiculous 17.55 K/9 (Hand is 11.66 in 2020, for reference) and it has made a difference in affecting the team’s likelihood of winning. In 2020, Karinchak’s context-neutral win percentage (WPA/LI) is 0.53 and Hand’s is 0.26, meaning Karinchak has twice the effect that Hand has had on win probability.

So, let Hand keep pitching the ninth, it’s great actually. I just hope he can pitch with the lead every so often.