In March, if you were to place bets on the 2019 Cleveland Indians, the order of probability would go something like this: American League Central Division title, minimum two top 5 American League Cy Young pitchers, two top 10 American League MVP finishers, a bunch of other bets and maybe, two thirds of the way down the list, you would bet on the Tribe to have a solid bullpen. After all, the 2018 pen left a lot to be desired and we lost 2016/17 heroes Andrew Miller and Cody Allen coming into 2019.
Well, had you bet with what we knew in March, your money would have gone bye-bye. The whole idea of our March “knowledge” has been tossed out the window. What we do know, 45% of the way into 2019, is that our AL Central title hopes are dim. Our starting pitching has endured catastrophic challenges and one half of our MVP combo has put forth (below) replacement level numbers. But the pen… The bullpen has been a lost gem in the lost season. Despite all of the off season angst, Cleveland’s 2019 bullpen has rebounded into prominence. Through 70 games, the Tribe bullpen sits 1st in the majors in ERA, 2nd in FIP, 4th in WAR, 1st in ERA- and 5th in K-BB%. The pen deserves a hand on their performance to date.
In what is going to be an obvious double entendre, the bullpen is anchored by Brad Hand; and to date, his numbers have been absolutely stellar. Through what is nearly one half of a season, Hand has accumulated 20 saves, 1.4 WAR (3rd among qualified relievers) while posting a .88 ERA (2nd) and 1.59 FIP (3rd). Hand has arguably been the best reliever in all of baseball and as such has anchored a Tribe bullpen who also sits among the top of the MLB – a career year to date, which begs the question, should Hand be dealt?
This question is no doubt a tough one. The short answer to ‘when has the Tribe had a better reliever’ is… never. Now I am not going to dissect the entirety of Cleveland relief pitching by 70 game increments; but if Hand were to keep this pace for an entire season, his would end the best single-season individual relief performance in Cleveland Indians history.
So why would such a valuable commodity be on the trade block?
a) The Tribe is currently ten games out of the AL Central division. Making these games up over the back half of the season, given the Twins trajectory, will be a Herculean effort. Not that this cannot be done, but it will require both a Tribe surge accompanied by a steep decline from the Twins. To be succinct, the odds are not in our favor to win the AL Central. A player like Hand would be an extreme asset in a postseason run as seen by the 2016 Tribe pen. But to hold a player on the premise that we get past a single-elimination postseason game is a calculated risk.
b) He is at an absolute all-time high. Brad Hand has flat out never looked this good. His previous low in FIP was 3.03 in 2017 with the Padres. He currently sits near half that at 1.59 nearly halfway through 2019. At 29 years of age, it is not impossible that he is seeing a spike in performance, but the curve is starting to shift in favor of Father Time. He is a top of the line reliever and as such should command a hefty return.
c) Brad Hand himself is a non-intentional spokesman for future Brad Hands. Hand was DFA’d by the Miami Marlins after 2015 following a failed experiment as a starting pitcher. He was subsequently picked up by the San Diego Padres (much like his former teammate Kirby Yates) and transformed into an elite reliever; a billing that he has lived up to through this writing. But, the precedence of second life reliever aces lives on. The 2019 team benefits from a similar surge from Nick Wittgren. An argument can be made that players of Hand’s ilk can be found. As it currently sits, Hand trails two relievers in WAR – one of which is the aforementioned Kirby Yates; another retread.
d) 2018 Andrew Miller. Hand has experienced a fair amount of high leverage innings over the course of the past four seasons. Much like his predecessor Miller, he looks as if he is nearly untouchable. His numbers are elite, he’s under 30 and he is locked into team-friendly numbers through 2021. But, if 2018 taught us anything it is that relievers (nay players) can be extremely fickle (see Jose Ramirez). To hold Brad Hand now as a weapon for 2020 may be fools gold. Right now, we are playing with house money. We got a great reliever who turned into an elite reliever. The time might be right to sell high and use the surplus to extend our current run.
With all that said, there is certainly an argument to be made for Brad Hand to stay in a Tribe uniform. As was mentioned earlier, he is on track to be arguably the best reliever in Tribe history – there is a lot to be said for a lockdown closer at the back of your pen. He is also anchoring a bullpen that sits well into the top third in all of baseball. With Mike Clevinger’s return to the rotation, the pressure on the pen should be expected to decrease. A return to form for the rotation, coupled with a more well-rounded lineup makes the luxury of a stellar bullpen all the more advantageous.
At the end of the day, I write about the Cleveland Indians because I believe in the Cleveland Indians. I believe that this team as constructed can make a run. What better chip to have than the best reliever in franchise history to make a postseason push. While Hand could possibly be moved to add chips to extend this run, there is inherent risk in banking on the unknown – after all, a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. Following all of the off-season turmoil, I am proud to see the 2019 Indians bullpen emerge as one of the best in baseball; all the while they have overcome obstacles and expectations to help meander through injury and underperformance from the rest of the roster. At nearly one half of the way through the 2019 season, the Tribe pen has outperformed all expectations and it is my belief that they deserve a Hand.