Reliever Number One: Brad Hand
The Astros already have a left-handed reliever on the major league roster, Tony Sipp, who is in the middle of a decent campaign. But Houston’s decision makers do not use Sipp much when the game is on the line. Fellow lefty Reymin Guduan has recently taken Smith’s place on the active roster, but he is relatively untested at the major league level.
For a contender like the Astros, it is difficult to navigate through the postseason without a proven left-handed reliever who can be used in more high leverage situations. I am still quite thankful that left-handed Francisco Liriano was able to get the left-handed Cody Bellinger to ground out in the fifth inning of Game 7 during the World Series. And I am still not sure how the Astros navigated the postseason waters with only the right-handed Chris Devenski as their go-to answer for left-handed hitters in most games.
Enter a familiar name from last year’s rumor mill, Brad Hand.
The Padres’ left-handed closer has been a popular fixture on the rumor cycle. And for the right reasons. For one, he has consistently been one of the best relievers in baseball with a combined 2.06 ERA and 2.96 FIP over the past two seasons. He is also under a team-friendly contract of three-years for $18 million for the rebuilding Padres. Oh, there is also a team option for a fourth year. In other words, great value.
Another draw to Hand is his ability to get both right- and left-handed batters out.
2018 right- vs. left-handed hitter splits
Right-handed: 22 IP, 97 TBF, .205/.320/.313, .290 wOBA
Left-handed: 12.1 IP, 42 TBF, .053/.146/.162, .148 wOBA
In short, Hand is really, really good. His 37.4% strikeout rate is currently the tenth-highest among all qualified relievers. While his walk rate of 10.4% isn’t among the best, his high strikeout rate covers for it. Hand’s numbers also look more impressive once you look at how batters are swinging against him compared to 2017.
Change in swing rates, 2017 vs. 2018
Pitches swung outside the zone (O-Swing %): -2.0%
Pitches swung inside the zone (Z-Swing %): -8.2%
Total pitches swung, inside and outside the zone (Swing %): -4.0%
Change in contact rate, 2017 vs. 2018
Outside the zone contact rate (O-Contact%): +8.2%
Inside the zone contact rate (Z-Contact%): -6.3%
Total contact rate, inside and outside the zone (Contact%): -1.0%
Batters have changed their approach with Hand in 2018. In fact, hitters have been much less apt at swinging at all. However, they are making more contact with pitches that land outside the zone and less contact with pitches thrown inside the zone. But Hand has improved his first-strike rate by 2.1% this season and he has also increased his groundball rate by 2.2%. If anything, the quality of Hand’s pitches inside the zone has generally improved. Hand’s velocity, for example, has improved across the board early this season compared to last year. These changes would also explain why his strikeout rate is currently 4.0% higher than the 2017 rate.
Hand is also on a team-friendly contract for the foreseeable future. But the price of doing business with the Padres will be remarkably high. And, no, AJ Reed will not be enough to trade for Hand. I wouldn’t be shocked if the Padres held out for someone in Kyle Tucker‘s class as the main centerpiece. But if general Jeff Luhnow can talk them down to a slightly lower price, then the Astros may be wise to consummate a trade.
Now, I feel the bad “Hand” puns coming fast.