Earlier this week I wrote about the Red Sox need in the bullpen, and specifically about the way former Twins righty Trevor May would fit with the roster. He ended up signing with the Mets just a day later, because that’s just how these things go for me. However, in that linked post I mentioned that May specifically was a good target, but the bigger deal was that they needed someone of that ilk. Boston needs a new reliever at the top of their depth chart. So, with May off the board, we move on to the next one. Actually, maybe not even the next one, as I think there’s an argument for Brad Hand, the player we’re going to talk about today, being the best reliever on the market this year.
it didn’t always look like Hand was destined to be something special in the majors. The lefty started his career with the Marlins trying to latch on as a starter. He was never quite able to get anything going there, spending most of his career with the Marlins looking like the bad version of today’s Martín Pérez. So it didn’t really make many headlines when he was put on waivers and subsequently claimed by the Padres.
San Diego, however, decided to let Hand go to the bullpen on a full-time basis, and he immediately made an impact. This was in 2016, and he’s consistently been among the top 20 or so relievers in the game each and every year since then. The lefty would be on the move again once more in his career, getting traded to the Indians for then-prospect Francisco Mejía midway through the 2018 season.
He’d been with Cleveland ever since, including this past season. They could have had him for the upcoming 2021 season as well, but in a move that was the biggest signal thus far of the lack of spending we’ll see this offseason they placed him on waivers rather than pay him the $10 million option they had for 2021. And on top of that, no one claimed him. Obviously that includes the Red Sox. So, somehow one of the best relievers in baseball finds himself on the open market after being freely available at a reasonable price for one year to all teams in the game.
And because of all that, I want to start off with the contract projections. That’s what Hand’s offseason has been all about to this point, so why not start there? FanGraphs readers predict the southpaw to get a three-year deal worth $27.9 million. MLB Trade Rumors, meanwhile, are calling for a two-year, $14 million deal. That’s one of the biggest discrepancies we’ll see on any player this winter, but I certainly think the latter is more accurate. It wouldn’t make a whole lot of sense if he got a three-year deal with an average annual value negligibly lower than the one-year salary any team could have had him at for free just a few weeks ago.
Your mileage may vary on exactly where you think that total contract figure will ultimately land, but just keep a number somewhere generally close to that MLB Trade Rumors prediction in mind while we go through just how consistently great Hand has been since becoming a full-time reliever. Again, this dates back to 2016, which is somehow five years ago at this point. Look below at his strikeout rates, walk rates, ERA- and FIP- for every year since then. (ERA- and FIP- are adjusted for era and park effects, and a number below zero is better than average. So, for example, an ERA- of 90 means the pitcher’s ERA was 10 percent better than league-average after adjusting for park effects.) And keep in mind that he was healthy every year as well, appearing in at least 60 games each season from 2016 through 2019 while appearing in 22 in 2020.
We, a royal we regarding baseball fans in general, have a weird sort of cognitive dissonance when it comes to relievers. On the one hand, we don’t think teams should be spending a ton of money on established ones. They are, as the conventional wisdom goes, volatile and it shouldn’t be too difficult to develop your own. On the other hand, we all lose our minds when our closer is anything but perfect for any amount of time. It’s a natural reaction and I’m not trying to make a value judgement on the reaction to late-game losses. But I think it does speak to trying to find that consistency, and when you don’t have that in-house there is value in finding it another way.
Hand’s career since the day he became a full-time reliever has flown in the face of the idea of reliever volatility. He has been nothing less than outstanding every single season since that 2016 campaign when he started throwing out of the bullpen. If we go back to that season and go up through this past one, Hand is near the top of nearly every leaderboard. In innings, only Yusmeiro Petit has thrown more. In K% - BB%, only 10 relievers rank ahead of him. In ERA-, only 11 do. In FIP-, only 16 do. In fWAR, only seven do. You get the idea.
As I said in the May post, the Red Sox don’t necessarily need to rush at this position. There are other options beyond even Hand, and even with May off the board, and the priority is starting pitching. That last part has been said a million times, but it remains true. That said, there is a way for them to just pencil in consistent, top-20 relief performance, which is not a contribution to take lightly. And judging by the way he slipped through waivers, it wouldn’t cost all that much either.