Brad Hand is one of the last of a dying breed, the left-handed specialist. But, he’s still carving out a solid career for himself in Major League Baseball, and contributed to a 104-win team in 2023 after switching uniforms at the Trade Deadline.
Hand signed a one-year, $2 million contract with the Colorado Rockies in March of 2023 that included a $7 million club option for 2024. For some reason, that club option converted into a mutual option if we was traded at any point during the 2023 season. (It’s like an escape clause, which is a weird thing to offer to a player if he’s traded.)
Well he was traded during the 2023, as the Braves made him one of their Trade Deadline acquisitions in exchange for minor league pitcher Alec Barger.
What were the expectations?
Left-handed specialist, or LOOGYs, are becoming rarer and rarer these days, as the three-batter minimum has all but put them out of business. Hand had a dominant relief run for a half-decade after failing to cut it as a starter, but those days are long gone now. At this point, he is your pretty standard LOOGY and so expectations upon his arrival in Atlanta were low, if for no other reason than because it was tough to know what sort of consistent role he could have under the modern rules of baseball. Combine that with the fact that he came over to the Braves with a 90 ERA-, 87 FIP-, and 93 xFIP- with Colorado, along with the fact that he was mediocre in 2022 and below replacement in 2021, and it all nets out to expectations being pretty tempered.
Atlanta need some left-handed depth in their pen with uncertainty around Dylan Lee returning to Atlanta and some nagging issues with A.J. Minter and were hoping Hand’s wealth of experience, and ability to throw with his left hand, could help out at least to some extent.
Once Hand arrived in Atlanta, the early returns were all the Braves could really hope for. In his first 13 2⁄3 innings with the Braves, Hand only surrendered five earned runs, and posted a more than respectable 3.95 ERA with a 3.33 FIP (an 89/77/85 line, albeit with two shutdowns to two meltdowns). In that span, he struck out 12, only walked three and only allowed a single home run. The Braves had to feel good about the production they were getting for such a modest prospect cost.
Unfortunately for Hand, it got way bumpier after that, as he allowed nine earned runs in his last four innings pitched, and while his Braves tenure started out with a very respectable pitching line, it ended with 169/94/88. Note that he didn’t really pitch worse at the end of the year on a K/BB basis, but the line was uglier anyway. (Nor did he face more righties in his last few games, or anything like that.)
Hand finished the year with an aggregate 117/89/92 line between Colorado and Atlanta, good for 0.5 fWAR across 53 2⁄3 innings. However, because he finished with negative WPA and more meltdowns (12) than shutdowns (10), chances are that his season won’t be fondly remembered.
What went right?
As you would expect, Hand did solid work against left-handed hitters in 2023, holding them to .200/.297/.288 triple-slash line over 93 batters faced. He allowed one homer all season to a left-handed hitter while striking out an even third of them. His FIP and xFIP against left-handers were 2.55 and 2.85, respectively; they were even better in Atlanta, at 2.86 and 2.03, respectively, across 34 lefty batters.
Basically, Brad Hand, the LOOGY, was really good against the guys LOOGYs exist to retire. Go figure.
Also impressive was that Hand kept the ball in the ballpark, only allowing six homers total in 53 innings pitched, despite spending all season in two homer-friendly parks in Coors Field and Truist Park. He didn’t benefit from an abnormal HR/FB; either — but he did give up a lot of line drives rather than fly balls, which explains his xERA and the lack of homers yielded.
One of Hand’s most fun outings this year was him picking up his only save, in an extra-inning game against the Phillies. The Braves blew a one-run lead in the ninth, but scored a run in the tenth. Hand came on, yielded a groundout to move the free runner to third but then struck out Brandon Marsh (a lefty, of course) and then sealed the game with a pop-up. Here’s him sending Marsh to the bench with a perfectly-placed two-strike sweeper:
What went wrong?
Again, as you would expect, pretty much all of Hand’s problem come from the fact that he, at this point, apparently, shouldn't ever be allowed to face a right-handed hitter. In a league that has a three-batter minimum for pitchers, unfortunately for Hand, that's basically impossible to do.
Case in point, Hand faced 93 left-handed hitters last year and faced 143 right-handed hitters. That's a disastrous ratio for a LOOGY, and it was disastrous for Hand in 2023. The Braves tried to, and did, improve this a bit, but it didn’t do much: 34 lefties faced, to 45 righties. While lefty batters only posted a .267 wOBA against him, righties posted a terrifying .394 wOBA against him. Hand’s 2.55 FIP/2.85 xFIP versus lefty bats turned into a 5.09 FIP/4.86 xFIP against righties, and the rules made it almost impossible to keep him away from righties. After the trade to the Braves, this gap became even more stark: 2.86/2.03 against lefties, and 4.90/5.24 against righties. Oof. This is why LOOGYs are on their way out of baseball, at least as it currently operates.
Here’s Hand blowing a game against a paltry right-handed bat in Jacob Stallings, on basically the same pitch that struck Marsh out above. Ah, the duality of Hand:
There’s more, though, and it’s not really about Brad Hand himself. While acquired to shore up the team’s left-handed relief options, the team didn’t really bother using him when they needed to. In the NLDS, Braves pitching faced 27 lefty Philly bats in medium or high leverage. Hand participated in literally zero of those PAs — his sole appearance was in NLDS Game 3, where Bryce Elder gave up a key three-run homer to Bryce Harper in lieu of Hand making an appearance. Hand eventually got in the game and collected two strikeouts before Harper also took him deep, but that was already in garbage time. The Braves acquired Hand for something, but from watching the playoffs, the nature of that something definitely wasn’t self-evident.
When Hand was traded at the deadline, his $7M club option converted into $7M mutual option, which essentially functioned as the same thing because the Braves were going to decline it either way. It’s just too much money to spend on a reliever when the rules of the sport so clearly obstruct you from using the guy the way he needs to be used.
Hand’s plethora of experience, and hard-to-look-past success against lefties may earn him a look somewhere else in 2024, maybe on a minor league deal or split contract, but his specific job was all but wiped out by the three-batter minimum and I don't know how much longer he can hang on in the modern version of the sport. There may be a team that badly needs a lefty reliever and plays in a division where the other teams all have lefty-skewed lineups, and that would be a fit, but something beyond that could be a problem. He’s probably not much better than replacement level if you figure facing righties is going to figure prominently into his future, and only a mediocre reliever even if it doesn’t, because of how bad his splits are.