Truncated season be damned, Brad Hand led the majors in saves last year notching all 16 chances he received with Cleveland. His reward, the team declining his $10 million dollar option for 2021. On the surface, it appears the team may know something about Hand's decreased velocity and his guile may not be enough to overcome it. However, the Washington Nationals decided to push the chips in signing Hand, fitting the franchise's “win now” credo with an aging veteran rotation. Hand gets a chance to close out games to rebuild his market and Washington adds a veteran southpaw to its high leverage stable.

Fantasy owners need to process the moving parts within Hand's profile which may determine his outcomes for the upcoming season. During 2020, Hand won two of his three decisions with the aforementioned 16 saves over 22 innings with a 29:4 K:BB, 2.05 ERA, 2.80 SIERA and 0.77 WHIP. What's not to like here? He even recorded a career best 4.7 walk percentage fueling a career high strikeouts minus walks percent (K-BB%) of 29.1 over his 23 outings.

Hand benefited from a career low .255 batting average on balls in play (BABIP), well below the league rate of .293 last year by relievers and his own .287 career mark in the category. But, his left-on-base (strand) percentage fell to a career low 57.9 percent, 14 points below league average and well beneath his career rate of 74.3 percent. So these basically cancel each other out.

Shifting to his indicators on Fangraphs, Hand owned a 10.5 swinging strike percentage with a 75.5 contact rate, 84.2 Z-Contact (in the strike zone) percent and 29.7 O-Swing (outside the zone) percentage. Essentially, Hand produced fewer swings and misses while giving up more contact last season, a fine line to walk as a closer.

According to Statcast, Hand yielded 49 batted ball events giving up four barrels (8.2 percent) with an 87.5 MPH average exit velocity and an enticing 32.7 hard hit rate allowed. In fact, Hand's expected numbers indicate he pitched well despite the drop in velocity with a .175 expected batting average (xBA), a .235 expected weighted on-base average (xwOBA) and 2.48 expected ERA (xERA).

Hand's arsenal focused on two primary pitches, his slider and a four-seam fastball. Here's how each performed with underlying indicators provided:

  • Hand Slider 2020: 50.7 percent usage, .138 xBA, .238 xwOBA, 25 degree average launch angle, 38.6 whiff percentage, 45.9 K%, 25 put away percent
  • Hand Four-Seam Fastball 2020: 35.5 percent usage, .155 xBA, .251 xwOBA, 28 degree average launch angle, 9.4 whiff percentage, 30 K%, 20.3 put away percent

Not listed, Hand's sinker which he deployed 12.4 percent of the time and a pitch he's working on for 2021 according to an article by Jesse Dougherty of the Washington Post. Searching for an uptick in his velocity across his repertoire, Hand hopes to recapture his more dominant ways of the past along by generating more ground balls. Over the last two seasons, Hand's recorded ground ball rates of 27.9 percent in 2019 and 26.5 percent last year, well below 2018 when Hand turned in a 46.2 percent ground ball rate. Perhaps the sinker remains a key to migrating back to this level of production.

Delving into his discipline metrics on Statcast, Hand's zone swing percentage against fell by 3.7 percentage points but his contact in it rose by over two percent. Luckily his chase contact rose by over 11 percent which accounts for the low hard hit rate allowed in 2020, but it's something to monitor. Hand's whiff percentage drop by almost six points raises more concern. He traded line drives for fly balls with aplomb, but with a higher barrel percentage and solid hit rate allowed. Like Johnny Cash, Hand walks the line.

Brooks Baseball does a tremendous job honing in by pitch for results. Here's how Hand's two primary pitches fared last year:

  • Hand Slider 2020: 14.7 SwStr%, 37.5 GB%
  • Hand Four -Seam Fastball 2020: 6 SwStr%, 16.7 GB%

Once again, the importance of an improved sinker could prove pivotal to Hand's success in 2021 along with reentering the marketplace as a free agent in 2022. Much can be made from Hand's velocity decreases, but his game-to-game variance may provide some insight. Here's his game by game results from Brooks Baseball from the second half of 2019 through last season:

During this time frame, Hand's numbers appear as such:

  • Hand 2H 2019-through-2020: 4-2, 27 Saves, 42 IP, 58:12 K:BB, 3.64 ERA, 3.08 SIERA, 1.21 WHIP, 32 K%, 6.6 BB%, 25.4 K-BB%, 11.9 SwStr%

Hand's tied for third overall in saves in this sample and hope lies in his SIERA, the most predictive of future ERA in the Fangraphs underlying indicators. Harkening back to the introduction, Hand's .340 BABIP and 70.9 LOB% once again provide a mixed bag of variance and luck within this time frame. What can be mined, Hand somehow produces saves despite all the minutiae provided to this point.

Over the last three years, Hand ranks second in saves and first in saves plus holds:

  • Hand Last Three Years: 10-10, 83 Saves, 11 Holds, 167 Games, 158.2 IP, 220:50 K:BB, 3.23 ERA, 2.72 SIERA, 1.10 WHIP, 34.8 K%, 7.9 BB%, 26.9 K-BB%, 13 SwStr%

Among qualified relievers the last three seasons, Hand ranks accordingly:

  • Strikeouts - 5th
  • ERA - 18th
  • SIERA - 9th
  • WHIP - tied for 19th
  • K-BB% - 8th

A key to his success lies in his tremendous slider:

Using all of the information above, Hand's projections for 2021 identify as a mixed bag dependent on if one believes in his skill set and a potential velocity bump returns:

  • Hand 2021 Steamer projection: 3-3, 21 Saves, 65 IP, 75:25 K:BB, 4.14 ERA, 1.27 WHIP
  • Hand 2021 ZiPS projection: 5-3, 60.3 IP, 84:19 K:BB, 3.28 ERA, 1.09 WHIP
  • Hand 2021 ATC projection: 4-3, 17 Saves, 61 IP, 76:20 K:BB, 3.66 ERA, 1.17 WHIP

In fact, these three samples almost represent levels of outcomes. If Hand struggles with Washington, the Steamer numbers could result. However, ZiPS provides more juice in terms of strikeouts even though it does not predict save totals. Provided fantasy owners received this outcome and a majority saves share, Hand could produce 20 or more saves with ratio protection. Last, the ATC takes a more conservative approach aligning more with Hand's second half of 2019 through 2020 splits.

Pros for Hand include he's one of six relievers with more than 100 saves and an ERA below three since the start of 2016. His xERA (2.48) and SIERA (2.80) set an enticing sliding scale for his ERA in 2021 if it comes to fruition. Cons regarding Hand lie in his ability to keep generating strikeouts if his velocity does not return to previous levels and the lack of ground balls results in more home runs. Hand's spring numbers should not be focused on outcomes. Mind his velocities and any reports of a retooled sinker grip or a spike in usage. There's a path for Hand to succeed in 2021 for the Nationals and fantasy owners alike, which brings us to the age old adage, can Hand walk the line? 

Statistical Credits:

ZiPS projection courtesy of Dan Szymborski

ATC projection courtesy of Ariel Cohen