Nationals

Hand calls getting velocity back up ‘one of my biggest priorities’

Nationals
Brad Hand

Brad Hand has heard it all offseason.

He may be a three-time All-Star who led the majors in saves last season, but all anyone has talked about this winter has been his velocity. Hand averaged 91.7 mph on his fastball in 2020, the slowest he’s thrown the pitch since moving to a full-time bullpen role in 2016. It was the second-straight year his four-seamer lost a bit of speed.

After his free-agent market was reportedly impacted by the slide in velocity, Hand is out to add a few ticks back on his fastball. The left-hander got a jump start on his preseason routine, ramping up earlier than usual. He said Tuesday in a Zoom press conference that he’s already five or six bullpens in.

“I’ve been trying to get that dialed up this offseason,” Hand said. “[It] was one of my biggest priorities this offseason just to figure out what was going different, why the velocity wasn’t there because over the course of the year I felt great. It wasn’t, for some reason, coming out the same as it had been.

“That’s one of the main reasons I started throwing a little bit earlier, getting off the mound a little bit earlier, try to get that back a little bit and I think, as of right now, it’s pretty good so we’ll see what happens once games start but where I’m at right now I feel like I’m in a very good spot. We’ll see where the velo is at this year.”

 

Even with a fastball slower than it used to be, Hand has remained effective. He struck out 33.7 percent of batters faced last season, good enough for a spot in the top 20 of all relievers in that category. Even as his flyball rate soared to 57.1 percent (compared to 37.1% career average), Hand didn’t allow a single home run in 2020 while walking fewer batters (1.6 BB/9) than he ever had.

Of course, the shortened season made for small sample sizes that are tough to draw too many conclusions from. But Hand recognized the decline in velocity and tried to adapt to it, something he thinks could work in his favor moving forward — especially if he can get some of that speed back.

“I think it helped me out a lot, just being able to know that I can pitch at that range,” Hand said. “Obviously, I don’t want to pitch at that range I’m trying to get that back up, but I just had to learn how to pitch more, you know what I mean? Just trying to be on top of it and focus in on every pitch instead of just sometimes you’ll get ahead and just let one eat.”

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If Hand’s velocity problems prove to be a mirage or he continues to produce strong results anyway, no one stands to benefit more than the Nationals. The Cleveland Indians declined Hand’s $10 million option for 2021 earlier this offseason, which wasn’t all that surprising considering the cost-cutting measures being carried out across the league. What was surprising was that Hand cleared waivers, meaning every single team passed on the chance to acquire him for that $10 million price tag.

The Nationals waited a few months to show serious interest before reportedly signing him for $10.5 million. Hand will be the fifth-highest paid player on the roster, but the deal itself is low risk considering he’s signed for only one year. They needed a left-handed option for the back end of the bullpen and there was no better option available in free agency than Hand.

Hand will go into 2021 with a narrative he’s become all too familiar with. That won’t stop him from trying to reverse the trend.

“I hear it every single day,” Hand said on 106.7 The Fan’s Grant & Danny show Tuesday afternoon. “It motivates me…I just see it all over social media and stuff.”