“I just had to be more fine,” Hand said during a video conference call Tuesday, having officially signed a one-year, $10.5 million contract with the Washington Nationals. “I wasn’t getting away with stuff middle-of-the-plate. I had to really focus on the location and make sure I got it to the spot I wanted to.”
Those are normal goals for a major league pitcher. If they’ve now crystallized for Hand as a product of decreased velocity, that seems like a positive heading into the second half of his career. Or perhaps it’s closer to coy athlete-speak and there is deeper strategy here.
Either way, questions about Hand’s diminished velocity have followed him into 2021. ESPN reported the dip had a “demonstrable effect” on his free agent market before he landed with the Nationals. On Tuesday, he called restoring velocity the top goal of his offseason. Hand’s out pitch is his slider, and he throws it roughly 50 percent of the time. Fastballs make up the other half of the left-hander’s arsenal. That’s why Hand feels the need to elevate his speed.
“It helped me out a lot just to be able to know that I can pitch in that [velocity] range,” said Hand, who will turn 31 in March. “Obviously I don’t want to pitch in that range. I’m trying to get that back up. But I had to learn how to pitch more, you know what I mean? Just try to be on top of it and focus on every pitch.”
(A note on the structure of Hand’s contract with the Nationals: He will make $4 million in 2021 and have the last $6.5 million deferred and paid out across the following three years, according to a person with knowledge of the terms. Washington prefers this method and uses it often to lessen the immediate financial impact of deals. It also benefits Hand because his primary residence is in Florida, meaning he won’t have to pay income tax on the deferred money. That will make up for any value lost with the deferrals, according to a person with knowledge of the finances, and get Hand his guaranteed amount.)
Hand mostly throws his slider and four-seam fastball. His sinker, a pitch he is working on this winter, makes up about 80 percent of his fastball usage (and about 15 percent of his overall usage in recent years). Data from analytics website Brooks Baseball shows Hand turns to his sinker against right-handed hitters, mostly on the first pitch or when he is ahead in the count. But he otherwise leans on the slider and four-seam combo that has helped him shine as a reliever.
He has a 2.70 ERA in 320 innings since becoming a full-time reliever in 2016. In 2020, he led the American League in saves (16) and games finished (21). His strikeout rate was a hair below 12 per nine innings, a marginal drop from the previous two seasons. His strikeout-per-walk rate jumped to 7.25 — the best of his career — though the sample size was tiny in the pandemic-shortened season. Hand did all this with an average fastball velocity of 91.4 mph. He did more than just tread water.
“Throughout the course of the year, I felt great. It just wasn’t, for some reason, coming out the same that it had been,” Hand said. “So that’s one of the main reasons I started throwing a little bit earlier, trying to get off the mound a little bit earlier, trying to get that back a little bit. As of right now, it’s pretty good. We’ll see what happens when games start.”
It’s hard to identify if or how Hand tweaked his approach in 2020. That’s both because it was a shortened year — only 23 appearances for him — and because pitch usage doesn’t often skew much for a guy who throws a near-even diet of sliders and four-seam fastballs. He had a higher rate of first-pitch sliders to lefties last year, perhaps showing less confidence in setting up counts or getting ahead with his fastball. But most of his other usage numbers didn’t waver.
One AL scout said even with a slower fastball, Hand’s effectiveness hinges on a 10- to 11-mph difference between his fastball and slider velocity. (The scout spoke about Hand on the condition of anonymity because his employer does not authorize him to talk with reporters.) That velocity difference, the scout explained, is a sweet spot that keeps hitters from recognizing the slider too early (as they could if it were even slower than his fastball) while creating movement that makes it tough to barrel.
In 2018, when his fastball velocity peaked, it averaged 93.6 mph, while his slider averaged 82.1. Last year, his average fastball velocity was 91.4 and his average slider velocity was 79.6. The gap barely changed — from 11.1 to 11.8 in 2020 — and he was a top reliever in both years.
By that logic, Hand could live with lowered fastball velocity if it keeps moving on a sliding scale with his go-to breaking pitch. He just made it clear Tuesday that he would rather not test it again.