The sports video game player rating is such a seductive concept. It so elegantly condenses what baseball analytics attempt to do. There’s no uncertainty—in simulation mode, a player’s video game rating is programmed into his performance. Therefore, if a player does surprisingly better, for example, gamers can simply monitor his player profile to see if he’s actually improved or simply playing over his head.
In real life, though, there are no ratings. We do have peripheral stats to try to explain player performances, but people don’t treat them the same way. After Brad Hand blew his second game in a row last Monday, that one against Boston, there was some genuine discussion on Twitter about whether or not he was okay and who should replace him. In a virtual world, this article wouldn’t be necessary—people could just go to Brad Hand’s profile, observe his 91 rating or whatever, and allow him to ride out his post-ASG slump, over which he’s accrued a 4.50/4.39 ERA/FIP, allowing a run in five of his 12 appearances. Still, his K%-BB% over that stretch is 27.3%, which ranks 19th in all of baseball. A quick peek at Hand’s splits show he’s been as effective as ever against left-handers, but righties, against whom he pitches more often, have roughed him up to a .344/.417/.688 triple slash. Clearly, if Hand is doing something wrong, it’s only against right-handed hitters.
Without the certainty of video game ratings, people tend to react strongly to small samples, especially when it comes to relievers. But the thing is, if you’ve seen a pitcher face a thousand batters, there’s very little new information you can gather from the next 55. As far as I’m concerned, the only meaningful, observable changes over that small of a sample are a new pitch, a wildly different mix of pitches, or a sudden change in velocity—that’s pretty much it.
Let’s see if Brad Hand is doing any of those things:
|Brad Hand||Fastball Velocity||Pitch Mix|
|Pre-ASG||92.7 MPH||4-seamer: 47.2%; Slider: 52.8%|
|Post-ASG||93.4 MPH||4-seamer: 38.4%; Slider: 61.6%|
Off the bat, we can eliminate a new pitch (he doesn’t have one) and fastball velocity as culprits for his struggles—players don’t typically get worse because they throw harder. On the other hand, there is a real change in pitch mix—could this be the cause of Hand’s struggles? The answer is almost certainly not. Of his duo of pitches, the slider is unquestionably the superior offering. This is the Astros “secret strategy”; they have their pitchers throw their best pitches more frequently. There must be a hypothetical maximum that pitch can be thrown effectively (unless you’re Mariano), but Hand’s slider hasn’t reached it yet.1
What’s actually happening is that hitters are doing damage nearly every time they hit the ball fair. Before Statcast, all anyone could say was: “A .407 BAbip is unsustainable. End of article.” We wouldn’t have been wrong, that BAbip is essentially guaranteed to go down, but we have so much more information now. We can look at the quality of his contact to tease out just how inflated that BAbip is.
Brad Hand has given up 30 balls in play this half, averaging a blazing 91.2 MPH off the bat—much greater than the 87.1 MPH exit velocity he was averaging before the all-star break. Put another way:
|% of Hand’s batted balls||>95 MPH %||<80 MPH %|
Yikes, contact has not been Brad Hand’s friend! He’s surrendered more hard-hit balls while forcing fewer weakly hit ones, you know, the opposite of what you want to see.
So what’s going on here? First of all, it’s worth recognizing that there are two symptoms: He’s allowing lots of hard contact AND he’s not forcing weakly hit balls. These phenomena are related, but separate, and in Hand’s case, they start at the same point: Hitters are swinging much more often in Hand’s recent outings. Well over 50%, Hand’s swing percentage is in the 90th percentile in MLB, whereas before, he was much closer to the middle of the pack.
Now, this isn’t inherently a bad thing; in fact, it’s kind of a good thing. Brad Hand is a fantastic pitcher with filthy stuff—most of his pitches are hard to hit. Swinging at good pitchers’ pitches is usually an ineffective strategy. Moreover, since the break, Hand is in the 97th percentile in chase rate, which is exceptional. Despite this, Hand is actually allowing the same amount of contact and fewer balls in play per pitch.
What this means is that batters are fouling off more of Hand’s pitches than before. From 2016 to the 2019 ASB, 16.6% of Hand’s pitches have been fouled off, but since the break, that number has skyrocketed to 23.3%. If that sounds like a lot, that’s because it is. Only 25 pitchers (min. 100 pitches) have given up a greater percentage of fouls. Against righties, Hand’s foul-rate is an even higher 26.5%. In fact, righties have swung at 26 of Hand’s pitches out of the zone. They’ve whiffed 12 times (great!), they’ve put the ball in play twice (both outs), and they’ve fouled off 12. That is a ton of foul balls!
This is meaningful, too: Some foul balls looked like this…
…but more of them look like this.
Baseball lore says that this is a good job by the hitter, and it is, although a better job would have been to not swing in the first place. Either way, Hand accomplishes his goal. He gets Polanco to swing at a bad pitch and make weak contact. It just was deflected into foul territory instead of fair. It stands to reason Hand’s missing soft contact could be hidden in this dramatic increase foul balls, a trend that reeks of regression.
As for the hard-hit balls, as I said, it begins in the same place. Batters have been swinging way more often against Hand. But that increase in swings isn’t just randomly scattered throughout the strike zone. The following table shows swing rates for righties on inside and outside pitches (N.B. inside refers to the inner third and pitches in off the plate; the same is true for outside)
As a fastball/slider lefty, Hand’s an expert with the “backfoot slider,” which appears to be a fastball, middle-in, before dipping in and below the zone into an unhittable spot, luring batters to swing at a pitch that nearly hits them in the foot. They can’t help themselves. So, they’ve also figured out they’re better off attacking pitches on the other side of the plate. Of Hand’s 30 total balls in play allowed, 11 of them have been outside pitches against right-handed hitters. Two of those are home runs. Seven of the 11 were hit 93+ MPH. This is not good for Brad Hand! Interestingly, his average exit velocity on outside pitches has only grown by about one MPH—righties have hit these pitches hard all season, but only now have they caught on.
As scary as all that sounds, Brad Hand is one easy adjustment away from fixing the problem. In the first half, 39.3% of his pitches to righties were either on the outer third or outside off the plate; in the second half, that’s gone up to 43.2%. Here’s a more detailed look:
Right-handed hitters can’t lay off the inside slider, and they can crush the outside one, and this half he’s been throwing outside more often. Let’s not overthink this: Brad Hand should probably throw fewer outside strikes that righties can crush and more inside pitches that they often whiff at.
He’s also been plain-old unlucky; remember his .407 BAbip? Since the break, his .286 xwOBA, that is, the wOBA that Statcast would have expected based on launch angle and exit velocity, is well below his actual wOBA of .347.
Brad Hand has gotten worse results, but his skills haven’t diminished, and therefore, there’s no major cause for concern. He’s still getting plenty of whiffs, the fouls balls and batted ball luck will regress, and hopefully, he adjusts his pitch location away from those outside pitches that right-handers have feasted upon. OR, this could all be random variance. Either way, I’m not worried about Brad Hand, yet…
N.B. Statistics up to date as of 8/17/2019, before Sunday’s rough outing against the Yankees.