Four More Relievers Just Signed

© Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

While titans of industry like Matt Olson, Nelson Cruz, and Josh Donaldson were changing teams, a few other things happened in the baseball world. For example: Sean Doolittle, Brad Hand, Ian Kennedy, and Chad Kuhl all found new teams. Sure, they weren’t the headliners of the last few days, but they’re all interesting in their own way. Let’s run down these signings alphabetically and maybe tell a joke or two while doing so.

Nationals Sign Sean Doolittle

When the Nationals traded for Sean Doolittle in 2017, he brought much-needed bullpen stability to an already-competitive team. Things aren’t quite the same for either side in their reunion. Doolittle had a down 2020, then signed a one-year, $1.5 million deal with the Reds. With Cincinnati out of the running and Doolittle losing high-leverage opportunities, they put him on waivers, and he finished his season as a middle reliever in Seattle.

A return to D.C. makes sense for both Doolittle and the Nationals. For Doolittle, it’s a chance to rebuild his value on a team where he’ll almost certainly receive decent playing time. At 35, he’s not down and out by any means, but there have been a number of red flags. His velocity dipped appreciably from the 93-95 mph he averaged during his Washington peak. His walk rate also ballooned; he walked 10.3% of the batters he faced last year, more than double his rate from 2017-19. His strikeout rate declined, too. In all, he went from a dominant late-inning reliever to a guy who you can’t count on in big spots.

That doesn’t have to be the way things go, but it’s hard to imagine there was much interest in Doolittle from contending teams. That doesn’t mean there wouldn’t be if he delivered a solid half-season of work, but you have to deliver that work somewhere. That somewhere being Washington will mean fans can reminisce about the good old days while he tries to work himself into shape. For a one-year major league contract whose size hasn’t yet been reported, it seems like a solid choice for both sides.

Phillies Add Brad Hand

Brad Hand signed a one-year, $6 million contract with the Phillies that continues the overhaul of what was one of the worst bullpens in baseball last year. Philadelphia has now added Hand, Corey Knebel, and Jeurys Familia to be three of the team’s top four arms. There’s just one problem:

Brad Hand, By Year
Year K% BB% SwStr% Barrel% ERA FIP xFIP
2016 30.5% 9.9% 12.2% 5.6% 2.92 3.07 3.34
2017 33.4% 6.4% 13.3% 4.4% 2.16 3.03 2.90
2018 35.2% 9.3% 13.5% 5.7% 2.75 3.20 2.97
2019 34.7% 7.4% 13.2% 6.6% 3.30 2.80 3.41
2020 33.7% 4.7% 10.5% 7.8% 2.05 1.37 3.83
2021 21.9% 9.4% 7.6% 8.6% 3.90 4.58 4.76

If you can think of a pitching stat, Hand struggled at it in 2021. There’s a reason he played for three teams; the Blue Jays acquired him from the Nationals, only to kick him to the curb less than a month later after a disastrous stint. He recovered somewhat on the Mets, but still, it was a rough year.

What went wrong? At the risk of oversimplifying, he stopped fooling hitters. Hand drew chases on 24% of his out-of-zone sliders in 2021, a career low. He drew chases on 13.9% of his out-of-zone fastballs, also a career low. I’m not exactly sure what you can do to fix that – Hand’s game simply feeds on chases, and his low-90s fastball isn’t the kind of pitch he can blow by hitters when he has to challenge them.

What’s the solution? Essentially, he has to paint the corners with his fastball, and he mysteriously lost that ability in 2021. He hit the shadow zone – the area around the edges of the plate on both sides – with his fastball at a career-low rate, which meant it was usually either a clear ball or clear strike, both bad outcomes for him. Meanwhile, hitters laid off the slider – he recorded a career-low swing rate on it. The Phillies are betting they can fix those two worrisome trends, but if they can’t, he’ll add gasoline to a bullpen that was already a fire hazard.

Diamondbacks Sign Ian Kennedy

The Diamondbacks might not project well, but they have an intriguing young offense. Their biggest problem? The rotation is light on difference-makers, and the bullpen is a step behind the rotation. They had a 5.08 ERA in 2021 and “compiled” -1.2 WAR in aggregate, the worst mark in baseball. It’s not going to be all sunshine and lollipops this year, but the team already added Mark Melancon, and Kennedy signed a one-year, $4.75 million deal (plus incentives) to join him.

I’m not convinced that this one really moves the needle, but you can at least see what Arizona is thinking. Kennedy was pretty good in 2021! He managed a 3.2 ERA in 56 innings, with a strikeout rate higher than his career average and a walk rate lower than his career mark. The hits don’t stop there; his 12.8% swinging strike rate was a career high by a fair margin. Is it time for the Kennaissance?

I can kind of believe it, actually. He does a lot of the things that I’m looking for in a late-inning reliever. He’s never thrown harder. He doubled down on his best pitch, a four-seamer he locates at the top of the zone. He’s added movement to the fastball and continues to locate it well. After a late-career switch to relieving, he seems to be hitting his stride at 37.

That’s not to say there are no risks here. Kennedy is 37, after all, and he pitched to a 4.75 FIP last year. He’s not getting any younger, and he ran a .244 BABIP in 2021, so regression might be coming. On the other hand, he probably should run a low BABIP. He generates a ton of fly balls and gets pop ups out of them at a high rate. It looks like a real skill; even if he doesn’t keep getting quite so many fly balls, he really should run a low BABIP.

Is it enough to fix Arizona’s bullpen issues? No. No, it is not. But as an incremental move that will tilt the Diamondbacks back towards contention, I really like it, and that’s all you can ask for from a one-year signing of a 37-year-old reliever.

Rockies Sign Chad Kuhl

One year! Three million dollars! Chad Kuhl is coming to a stadium near you, as long as you’re either in Denver or a rival NL West city. Kuhl might not fit in this reliever roundup, because he spent half of 2021 (and most of the previous four seasons) as a starter, but given his track record, I think the Rockies will use him as a swingman, getting fifth starter reps and occasionally pivoting to the bullpen.

Any jokes about this signing would center on the Rockies, not Kuhl. He seems like a perfectly good fringe starter; he walks too many batters and doesn’t have a true out pitch, but he answers the bell every fifth day, and there are signs that he’s doing something new and good of late. He recorded a career-high swinging strike rate in 2021 and missed more bats in the strike zone than he ever had before. Sure, he had a 4.82 ERA and 5.31 FIP. Sure, he’s only a few years removed from elbow surgery. But he misses bats and throws hard, and any lingering questions about whether he’d be able to return from Tommy John surgery have probably been answered by two straight mostly-healthy seasons.

I’d be very tempted to shift Kuhl to the bullpen full-time, scrap most of his current arsenal, and have him try to make it as a sinker/slider reliever. His slider is excellent, a true plus pitch, and I like his sinker as a complement to it. Even if the Rockies would prefer to emphasize his four-seamer, though, I’d be in favor of simplifying and focusing. There are the bones of a very interesting reliever here, and a guy who throws 95 mph with a wipeout slider is never far away from being a great bullpen arm. It’s just a matter of figuring out what works best for him.

But uh… this is Colorado’s big finish? They’ve been rumored to be in hot pursuit of plenty of big names throughout the winter, but every time you see the Rockies’ name in a signing rather than a rumor, it’s the Chad Kuhls of the world, rather than the Kris Bryants, at least so far. They’ve signed Kuhl, José Iglesias, Scott Schebler, and Alex Colomé so far this offseason. Jon Gray and Trevor Story have left, and the team wasn’t good to begin with. It’s a strange set of half-measures, particularly since it seems like the team wants to compete. I have no problem with signing Kuhl, but if he’s the best pitcher you sign in an offseason, you probably had a slow offseason.

Ben is a writer at FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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CC AFCmember
2 years ago

Man, that Hand signing confused me. $6m for…the hope that 2021 was a fluke and he’s still good? But it wasn’t like his peripherals were normal and he just had bad luck. All the underlying stuff tanked. It’s not like $6m is gonna kill anyone, but sheesh. Doolittle seems equally cooked, but at least he’s a delightful human being who will make road trips less mundane.

2 years ago
Reply to  CC AFC

I couldn’t agree with you more. It just goes to show that if you are left-handed and could reach the plate on the fly at some time in the past there is a place for you on a major league roster.