Many popular opinions of pitching prospects are formed from general scouting reports. While these reports are invaluable resources, they can’t always be trusted. Hundreds of minor league hurlers are credited with “mid-90′s velocity,” but very few MLB starters actually have that grade of heat, for example. It’s incredibly frustrating to hear about a pitcher with “a mid-90′s heater and plus curve,” only to have him come up to the big leagues and show a fastball that averages 90.5 mph and a slider.
When a pitcher come up to the majors, we can finally get a foolproof reading on what exactly his arsenal is comprised of, thanks to the great Pitch F/X system. In this series, I analyze just that–the “stuff” of recently-promoted MLB pitchers. Now that they’ve achieved their big league dreams and thus factor directly into the MLB picture, it’s high time that we know exactly what these guys are providing.
This time, I’m taking a look at Marlins starter Brad Hand.
Of all the pitchers I’ve taken a look at in this series, very few have been hit as hard as Brad Hand. Oh, yes, he’s skated by with a 4.20 ERA in 12 starts with the Marlins, but his FIP is 5.72, and for good reason. In 60 big league innings, Hand has walked 35, struck out 38, and allowed a whopping ten home runs. An extreme flyball pitcher, he has some ability to suppress BABIP (.240, although it won’t stay quite that low, most likely), but the flip side is that the homer problems are very real (10.1% HR/FB) and unlikely to dissipate. That puts a lot of pressure on the lefty to deliver an excellent strikeout-to-walk ratio, which he obviously hasn’t done yet.
Now, Hand is just 21, and the Marlins are probably the only organization that would have had him start twelve big league games this season. A solid but unspectacular prospect entering the season, he posted a okay-for-his-age-but-not-great 4.62 FIP in Double-A before getting the call, and he’s been yanked between Double-A and the majors since. Few teams are as quick to pull the trigger on getting prospects from Double-A to the majors as Florida.
So, Hand certainly gets a pass for his poor performance this season. But what is he doing wrong, what does he need to improve, and what might he be capable of improving? Let’s look.
Baseball America credited Hand with a “91-94 mph fastball” before the 2011 season, and it’s designations like that that inspired me to start this series in the first place. That’s not to say that was an incorrect report (perhaps his velocity has declined since), but Hand has worked at 88-91 mph in the majors, with an average of 89.5 mph on his heater.
Hand’s fastball has some interesting traits beyond its velocity. On the Pitch F/X system, the average four-seam fastball is credited with around six inches of horizontal armside run and nine inches of vertical “rise” relative to a ball with no spin (think of the vertical movement less as “rise,” which is physically impossible, and more as “lack of sink”). Two-seam fastballs and sinkers tend to have less “rise” and more “run,” usually featuring about three more inches of sink and run compared to a four-seamer. Hand’s fastball, however, features nine inches of “run” and nine inches of “rise,” which is quite uncommon.
It’s actually pretty easy to explain, though, when you watch Hand pitch. He drops his back shoulder during his windup, which means he’s throwing “uphill” somewhat. Pitchers with this sort of motion tend to have higher than average “rise” readings (10-12 inches on four-seamers), which means that we can basically call Hand’s heater a two-seamer that has less sink than normal due to his delivery. That explains his flyball tendency, for one thing; he’s throwing the ball on such an uphill plane that most batters are going to get underneath his pitches.
The below-average vertical drop extends to Hand’s other two pitches: a slurve in the upper 70′s and a changeup in the 80-83 mph range. The breaking pitch was often cited as plus in the minors, but it lacks the movement to make hitters swing and miss with any consistency; indeed, just 13 of his 184 curves have been swung at and missed, and the pitch hasn’t even been much good against his fellow lefties.
Hand’s changeup shares the excellent run on his fastball, but also adds a little bit of sink, so it’s the one pitch in his arsenal that seems close to big-league ready. Unfortunately, Hand seems extremely scared to use it as anything but a chase pitch:
Yes, he was rushed to the majors, but there is a lot of work to be done if Hand is going to become an effective big league starter. His mechanics seem to be costing him all the leverage that his big frame naturally provides, he doesn’t throw hard, doesn’t throw anything that can get groundballs, and his two offspeed pitches consists of a show-pitch breaking ball and a changeup that often is ten inches out of the strike zone.
Hand needs to change his mechanics to incorporate his lower half better and get a better downward angle to the plate; otherwise, he won’t last long. At 21, he has time to make those adjustments, but one has to wonder if his superficial success this year will cause Hand and the Marlins organization to eschew any plans to tinker with his process. Hand clearly needs more time in the upper minors anyway, as his Double-A numbers attest, and perhaps he’ll be better prepared to face major-league hitters if and when he figures out how to retire the minors’ top bats.
For more on the Marlins, check out Marlin Maniac!