While most of last offseason’s major free agent activity was wrapped up by the new year, the left-handed relief market lagged. Matt Strahm and Taylor Rogers came off the board in December but veterans Andrew Chafin, Matt Moore and Zack Britton all lingered on the market. (Britton remains unsigned.)
Brad Hand also fell into the latter group. The three-time All-Star was a free agent until well into Spring Training. His camp had presumably pointed to last year’s 2.80 ERA over 45 innings for the Phillies and Hand’s broader track record since moving to relief. Teams were no doubt wary of dwindling swing-and-miss numbers that translated in a modest 19.2% strikeout rate and an 11.6% walk percentage that was his worst since going to the bullpen.
After four months of free agency, Hand signed a $3MM deal with the Rockies. Including a $1MM escalator for making the Opening Day roster, he’s being paid $2.5MM in salary. He’s also guaranteed at least a $500K buyout on a $7MM team/vesting option covering the 2024 season.
Colorado had a quiet winter, adding a handful of veteran free agents on one-year deals and bringing in unproven younger players via trade. Of the free agent pickups (Jurickson Profar, Pierce Johnson, José Ureña, Hand and Mike Moustakas), the southpaw has easily been the most effective.
Calling this a “rebound” campaign is probably doing Hand’s 2022 efforts a disservice. He worked around his middling strikeout and walk marks to keep runs off the board for Philadelphia, after all. Yet his first couple months in Colorado more closely resemble his best form.
The 33-year-old has punched out 30 of the 92 batters he’s faced over 23 appearances. His 32.6% strikeout rate is easily his best mark since 2020 and nine points higher than this year’s league average. Hand’s per-pitch metrics aren’t quite so excellent — his 11.3% swinging strike rate is around par for a reliever — but a notable step up from the past two seasons, when he was missing bats on less than 8% of his offerings.
Hand’s fastball velocity hasn’t changed. He has added some power back to his go-to slider. Hand is averaging 81.3 MPH on his breaking ball, a tick or two higher than he has over the past three years. The results have followed. Opponents are swinging through the slider far more than they have since 2020 and it’s been a particularly effective offering in two-strike counts.
Improving his swing-and-miss has allowed Hand to navigate his tough home environment. He carries a solid 3.86 ERA even as hitters are running a .400 average on balls in play against him. He hasn’t allowed a single home run. That obviously won’t continue over a full season but Hand’s ball-in-play results should come down to earth to help offset that.
That’s particularly true if he’s not calling Coors Field, which has the one of the game’s most spacious outfields, his home park all year. Hand’s uptick in whiffs figures to pique the interest of bullpen-needy contenders. As the trade deadline gets closer, general manager Bill Schmidt and his front office are likely to get questions on his availability.
There’s no guarantee the Rockies will actively shop Hand this summer, of course. At 26-35, Colorado is headed for another non-playoff season. Yet they’ve consistently resisted sweeping changes at previous trade deadlines. They’ve allowed some impending free agents (Trevor Story, Jon Gray) to hit the market and signed others to extensions (Daniel Bard, C.J. Cron) in response to what they felt weren’t compelling trade proposals.
Colorado might not have to do either in Hand’s case. Unless he finishes 25 games this season, the Rox would be able to keep him around via the club option. Hand has completed only six contests so far, putting him shy of a pace that’d convert the option into a mutual provision.
It’d also become a mutual option if Hand is traded. For the Rockies, whether to bring Hand back in 2024 is likely to be a club decision. For any other team, he’d have the right to retest free agency and would be viewed as more of a true rental.
Perhaps that discrepancy will diminish the trade offers to the point that Colorado prefers to play things out. So long as he keeps pitching at this level, though, he’ll be on the radar for other clubs. The Rockies haven’t had a ton go right to this point but the acquisition of Hand has developed as the front office would’ve drawn up.
Image courtesy of USA Today Sports.