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Spinning wheels over Brad Hand’s spring

I prefer a world in which Brad Hand pitches well, and so do you.

Brad Hand’s 2016 really couldn’t have gone any better — outside of being designated for assignment by the Marlins on Opening Day. It looks like an absurd transaction now, filtered through the binary lens of hindsight, but to be fair, at the beginning of the year, no one expected Brad Hand (and his career -0.1 fWAR amassed over 288 13 innings) to go on to epitomize the idea of the dominant, modern reliever — and that probably includes the Padres, who plucked him off waivers on April 8, four games into the season.

Hand would go on to make 82 appearances, pacing all relievers while showing up in more than half of the Padres’ games. The 89 13 relief innings he threw also led the league, and for a more historic sounding perspective, has been exceeded just 11 times over the last decade in American, professional baseball.

But beyond the sheer quantity, these were quality innings Hand delivered on his way to a top-20 reliever season by FanGraphs’ WAR.

Brad Hand — 2016

K% BB% K-BB% ERA FIP DRA fWAR WARP
K% BB% K-BB% ERA FIP DRA fWAR WARP
30.5 9.9 20.6 2.92 3.07 3.35 1.6 1.7

Now, a logical supposition that Brad Hand dilettantes might make is that, as a failed starter-turned-reliever, he was primarily working mop-up for a hapless Padres team — a notion to which I say, nay, dear friends. Nay.

When Hand entered games, the average leverage index (gmLI), which is “the swing in the possible change in win probability”, was 1.38 (1.00 is average). If we remove all relievers who amassed at least 10 saves, since closers generally appear in tenser situations, Hand jumps into the top 12 as measured by gmLI. What’s more, his 2.07 WPA places him in the top 20 among all relievers, with only three hurlers from non-playoff teams adding more win probability.

This is all to say that, while it may sound like a contradiction, Hand threw important innings for the Padres last year, often in bulk, and most importantly, whenever Andy Green summoned him — which featured a slew of different scenarios.

Data via Play Log at Fangraphs

If you’re keeping track at home on your “How fire is this reliever?” score sheet, it should look like this:

How ‘fire’ is this reliever?

Durable Dominant LHP High Leverage Flexible with regards to usage Wipe-out pitch No platoon
Durable Dominant LHP High Leverage Flexible with regards to usage Wipe-out pitch No platoon

You can kindly check the “wipe-out pitch” box, as I refer you to an article by the incomparable Jeff Sullivan, who points out that Hand’s newest weapon, his slider, was basically the clone of Andrew Miller’s slider in 2016. All it did was induce whiffs at a ludicrous 53-percent clip, while stifling damage against opposite-handed hitters. (Oh yeah — you can check the “no platoon” box now, too.)

Meanwhile, the Padres, for whatever their role was in all this, even if it was just claiming the 26-year-old southpaw from the Marlins, look incredibly shrewd. And as they’re likely preparing to unload any valuable trade pieces at the deadline this summer (as Jeff Sullivan also already wrote about), they have to be ecstatic to have an asset like Hand on their, well, hands.

That is, of course, if Hand really is the pitcher they got in 2016.

Let’s backtrack a bit. Brad Hand first caught my eye during the second half of 2016, when I noticed his fastball spin rate had been steadily climbing all year. With the season well in our rearview, here is the full account of his four-seam fastball’s ascent to an elite level spin-rate:

Data via Baseball Savant

Interesting! And it wasn’t just his four-seam fastball that experienced tremendous spin rate inflation, either — all of his pitches made substantial gains as the year went along.

Brad Hand’s arsenal’s increased spin rates

Pitch First half spin rate Second half spin rate Increase Rank in league by increase (total pitchers included in rankings)
Pitch First half spin rate Second half spin rate Increase Rank in league by increase (total pitchers included in rankings)
FF 2406 2576 170 1 (288)
SI 2254 2428 174 1 (108)
SL 2423 2584 161 6 (272)
CB 2533 2724 191 2 (132)
CH* 2183 2459 276 1 (167)
Minimum pitches per half for rankings: FF - 100. SI - 100. SL - 40. CB - 50. CH - 50. *Hand threw just one changeup in the second half (per baseball savant)

Neat!

I want to take just a moment to focus on four-seam fastballs. Out of the ten pitchers who increased their four-seamer’s spin rate the most between the first half and second half last year, Hand’s name stands out, not only as the name appearing at the top of the list, but as one of just three names who were healthy all year, did not return to a previously established norm, and/or did not change roles during the season (from reliever to starter or vice versa).

Top 10 gainers — FF spin rate

Player 1st half spin rate 2nd half spin rate Diff 2015 spin rate Injury Other
Player 1st half spin rate 2nd half spin rate Diff 2015 spin rate Injury Other
Brad Hand 2406 2576 170 2351 No No
Joe Kelly 2090 2249 159 2094 Shoulder & Groin Rotation to Bullpen
Chasen Shreve 2338 2464 126 2308 Shoulder No
Tyler Wilson 2211 2324 113 2177 No Rotation to Bullpen
Hansel Robles 2348 2455 107 2440 No Return to previous level
Kyle Ryan 2053 2152 99 2028 No No
Marcus Stroman 2284 2380 96 2307 Recovering from 2015 knee surgery No
Daniel Mengden 2103 2198 95 N/A No No
Tim Adleman 2219 2312 93 N/A Strained oblique No
Chad Green 2386 2477 91 N/A Forearm strain Bullpen to rotation

Now, it has yet to be determined why some pitchers possess higher spin rates than others, and outside of velocity gains, we’re in the dark about how pitchers can add spin. So while Hand’s velocity crept up a hair over the course of the year, it’s hardly evidence I can point to as to why Hand was able to increase his spin rate by so much, nor is it clear as to whether he’ll be able to maintain these new levels.

Most importantly, when we’re talking about improved spin rates, as I covered in my last article, it’s important to remember that only transverse spin is useful, and that transverse spin can be influenced by factors such as grip and release point. This is relevant because as I was following up on Hand while writing this article, I discovered that his release points seem to have gotten away from him this spring.

Ignore the changeup release point, as he’s thrown only one this spring.

Working under the premise that the 2016 version of Hand’s arsenal is the most effective, we’d ideally see the trend lines connecting 2016 to 2017 at as close to 180 degrees as possible. You see, the confluence of enhanced spin and the new release points he threw from in 2016 allowed him to create separation in the action between his pitches that he was not able to obtain in 2015. So, based on the release point data from spring training, it’s probably not a coincidence that his pitches thus far have been interacting — and producing results — a lot more like their 2015 versions.

If you need a clue on where to look, watch the yellow curveball and red slider dots move further away from the black fastball dot in 2016. Or, if you’re not visual, here’s the same data presented in strictly numeric values.

Up, down, in, out

Gap comparison 2015 2016 2017 spring training
Gap comparison 2015 2016 2017 spring training
Cut vs. Fade 16.32 15.74 15.46
Rise vs. Drop 11.85 13.58 8.63
Cut vs. Fade = SI/SL; Rise vs. Drop = FF/CU

I don’t mean to say that pitchers can’t succeed without making use of both vertical and horizontal movement, because they can. Among southpaws, Chris Sale comes to mind as someone who works primarily along the x-axis, and there’s some dude named Clayton Kershaw who relies heavily on a disparity in vertical movement to attack hitters. Hand, however does not possess elite movement in either direction, and he’s been at his best when he’s making use of both.

To wit, while Hand has shown improved control this spring, tallying a 72.4 strike percentage so far, the results from his pitches have regressed to resemble 2015’s results.

2015 - 2017 spring training

Stat 2015 2016 2017 spring training
Stat 2015 2016 2017 spring training
Whiff% 7.7 12.2 5.0
K% 16.4 30.5 15.4

At the end of the day, his spring training release points and numbers are pulled from an incredibly minuscule amount of information — he’s made just four appearances this spring, and Brooks has data for two of them — so it’s impossible to say for certain if this is anything but a blip or if it portends regression.

It seems like a release point issue could easily be ironed out before meaningful games are underway, so I’m hoping for the best. While Brad Hand’s performance means nothing in the cosmic sense, I prefer a world where he pitches well. That’s because if he’s pitching well, the Padres likely trade him, and that means more baseball conversations to be had. And since I’m writing — and you’re reading — about a reliever on what could be the worst team in baseball, I’m going to assume you feel the same way.

I wasn’t just calling you dear friends off-hand.


Author’s note:

I don’t mean to step on Jeff’s toes by writing about Hand so soon after he did (twice, no less), nor do I desire to oppose Mr. Sullivan, my favorite writer. The way I see it — and work with me here — is that if the baseball blogosphere is a wedding, and you, the readers, are collectively, somehow, the couple, Jeff Sullivan’s gift to you is a Vesuvius dual boiler with pressure profiling espresso machine. Meanwhile, I’m hanging around waiting for an opportunity to slip a poorly wrapped, re-gifted, Mr. Coffee 4 cup coffee maker onto the gift table without being seen. I’ve included the receipt.


Mark Davidson is a featured writer at Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him and send him bat flip gifs at @NtflxnRichHill