Sleight of Hand: How Brad is Fooling Hitters This Year

Shuttled constantly between the bullpen and the rotation throughout his young career with the Marlins, 26 year-old Brad Hand was claimed off waivers by the Padres this April. His new team decided to move him to the bullpen full time, and just like David Phelps (who I wrote about recently), Hand has seen a massive increase in strikeouts. Before this year, Hand didn’t even average six K’s per nine innings in the 288.2 innings he had thrown in his career as a whole. To put that number in context, of the 176 pitchers with at least 60 innings pitched this season, only 18 have averaged fewer than six K’s per nine. Of the 291 pitchers with at least 250 innings pitched from 2011 (when Hand debuted) to 2015, only 53 averaged fewer than six K’s per nine. Hand was number 254 on that list. You get the point.

Yet, this year, Hand has averaged 10.80 K’s per nine. That’s almost twice what his career average was before this year. I assumed that Hand just had an improved fastball velocity from going to the bullpen, like David Phelps. But, that actually wasn’t the case. Here are his average velocities by pitch over the years:

Year Fourseam Sinker Change Slider Curve
2011 90.34 0.00 82.32 0.00 79.06
2012 90.89 0.00 82.66 0.00 78.77
2013 94.02 87.88 87.08 0.00 80.20
2014 93.65 93.14 87.11 86.04 80.00
2015 93.01 92.81 86.45 84.39 79.09
2016 93.88 93.91 88.23 83.96 79.79

His velocities are good, but they’re pretty close to what he’s done in his career. However, there’s something interesting I noticed here: he didn’t start throwing a slider until 2014. That’s something to keep in mind as we take a look at his pitch usage:

Year Fourseam Sinker Curve Slider Change
2011 64.20 0.00 17.48 0.00 18.32
2012 68.13 0.00 20.88 0.00 10.99
2013 68.33 0.67 20.67 0.00 10.33
2014 39.61 25.69 21.58 0.11 13.01
2015 30.81 38.06 11.91 8.80 10.42
2016 29.23 33.72 7.73 27.79 1.53

So he’s pretty much scrapped the curve and change for his new slider. That’s something that you can do when pitching exclusively in the bullpen: you really only need one solid secondary offering, since you’re only going through the order once. While he threw just two sliders in 2014, the usage has seen a big jump, especially this year. He’s also throwing his four-seamer at a career low rate, despite throwing it with solid velocity. The sinker has become an integral part of his repertoire. But the main change here is the increased use of his slider. Why did he start throwing his slider so much? His whiff rates have the answer:

Year Fourseam Sinker Change Slider Curve
2011 6.05 0.00 12.12 0.00 7.94
2012 4.84 0.00 0.00 0.00 0.00
2013 6.83 50.00 12.90 0.00 12.90
2014 5.55 5.92 13.42 0.00 9.66
2015 8.40 4.93 12.42 22.06 10.87
2016 7.69 6.93 5.88 24.60 4.65

There it is! In the slider, there’s finally a plus pitch for whiffs from Brad Hand. His curve and change were just OK at getting whiffs, but now his slider is getting them at a rate far above average. The fact that his whiffs on the curve are at a career low rate this year has discouraged him from throwing it as much. He seemingly scrapped his changeup right away, as he’s thrown only 17 ineffective ones this year. But, the slider looks great, and the four-seamer and sinker are getting decent whiffs this year as well. PITCHf/x, in contrast to Brooks Baseball, thinks that many of Hand’s sliders have actually been curves. I have to agree with Brooks, and I’ll show you why. Here is a table showing the curve versus the slider this year:

Pitch Avg. Velo Horizontal Vertical
Curve 79.79 -5.03 -4.83
Slider 83.96 -4.66 -0.43

They have virtually the same horizontal movement, but that’s about where the similarities end. The slider is thrown over 4 MPH harder on average, and has much less drop than the curve (though -0.43 inches is still a good amount of drop for a slider). If graphs are your thing, I plotted Hand’s pitch frequencies per game using vertical movement against release speed, before and after the addition of the slider:

Clearly, there was a gap to fill there, and Hand filled it. I think that with this new slider, he can even be an effective starter; he now has five pitches, each with distinctly different movements. They cover four different velocity bands: the two fastballs usually hover around 93-94, the changeup 86-88, the slider 83-85, and the curve 79-80.

Data from FanGraphs and Brooks Baseball. Stats are as of morning 8/21/16. Thanks for reading!

Written by Alex Eisert

Photo Credits: Nelvin C. Cepeda / San Diego Union-Tribune

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