The Blue Jays Get a Helping Hand

The Toronto Blue Jays made a small addition on Thursday, picking up reliever Brad Hand from the Washington Nationals for catcher Riley Adams. Hand had a 3.59 ERA and 4.33 FIP in 41 games for the Nats as Daniel Hudson’s successor at closer. Adams struggled in his brief major league debut this season, going 3-for-30, but has played better for Buffalo with a .239/.371/.487 line in 35 games.

Before Hand’s acquisition, our depth charts ranked the Jays’ bullpen 27th in baseball, making them one of only two serious playoff contenders with a ‘pen in the bottom third of the league. That wasn’t entirely Toronto’s fault, as the relief corps has been decimated by injuries this season. It started with Kirby Yates needing Tommy John surgery before throwing a single regular season pitch for the Jays, and continued with the loss of Julian Merryweather a couple of weeks later, David Phelps and A.J. Cole in May, and Carl Edwards Jr., Tyler Chatwood, and Anthony Castro in the last six weeks. The team has increasingly leaned on Jordan Romano and Tim Mayza, and if it weren’t for Tayler Saucedo‘s solid debut and Adam Cimber’s recent acquisition, the wheels might have come off the bus already.

Adding Hand helps staunch the bleeding, but he’s no longer the kind of pitcher who can heal the wound. On paper, his 2020 was excellent (he posted a 2.05 ERA and a 1.37 FIP), but there were signs of trouble, including a dip in velocity and Hand’s worst xFIP since his days as a Marlins swingman without an out pitch. Cleveland placed Hand on waivers last October, but the erosion of his skills was such that no team wanted to commit to picking up his $10 million option that early in the offseason. He later signed a one-year, $10.5 million deal to join Washington.

Hand’s velocity has come back, but now there’s a more serious concern: his slider’s diminished effectiveness as an out pitch. As a prospect in Miami, Hand was a fairly orthodox fastball/curve/changeup pitcher until he was converted to relief and ditched the curve and change for a slider he developed with pitching coach Chuck Hernandez. Hand’s out-of-zone swing rate against illustrates his rise and fall as an elite reliever:

That graph is largely driven by Hand’s slider. Batters have only swing at 35% of his sliders this year, a career-low, and his whiff rate has dropped almost in half, from 50% in 2016 to 46% in ’17 to just 26% in ’21. To put that 26% into context, among the 300 pitchers who have thrown at least 100 sliders this season, Hand ranks near the bottom:

Pitchers Ranked by Slider Whiff Percentage
Rank Player BA SLG Whiff %
1 Jake Cousins .065 .065 61.5%
2 Jacob deGrom .096 .175 58.1%
3 Aaron Bummer .078 .078 57.9%
4 Rex Brothers .123 .215 56.5%
5 Josh Hader .174 .283 56.1%
6 Alex Reyes .060 .120 54.9%
7 Liam Hendriks .098 .216 54.7%
8 Daniel Hudson .185 .481 54.2%
9 Andrew Chafin .044 .133 52.3%
10 Tanner Scott .194 .215 52.2%
11 Brooks Raley .206 .294 52.2%
12 Ryan Hendrix .185 .369 51.6%
13 Ryan Tepera .116 .232 51.3%
14 Cody Stashak .176 .265 50.6%
15 Cristian Javier .125 .278 50.0%
259 Brad Hand .172 .250 25.5%
SOURCE: MLB Advanced Media

Hand hasn’t completely imploded because batters still can’t drive the slider, but it’s no longer a punch-out pitch, and neither his fastball nor his sinker induce many whiffs, leading to a lot more balls being put in play, a problem for a reliever who will enter a lot of games with runners on base. The result has been a drop in his strikeout rate from 33.7% in 2020 to 23.1% this season, rarely a good leading indicator for a pitcher. ZiPS projects Hand with a 3.61 ERA and a 3.85 FIP the rest of the season, a performance the Blue Jays would welcome, but not one that will alter Toronto’s eventual fate significantly.

The concerns about Hand are reflected in his return. Riley Adams was a third-rounder in 2017, but he’s generally been unimpressive defensively since he was drafted, and he’s found himself in a depth chart logjam in Toronto, slotting in behind Danny Jansen, Reese McGuire, and Alejandro Kirk. Gabriel Moreno, who has shined this year, might have already passed Adams on the depth chart if not for a broken thumb. ZiPS sees Adams’ future as that of a Triple-A fill-in who will get scattered playing time in the majors, a bit of a poor man’s Zack Collins.

ZiPS Projection – Riley Adams
2022 .208 .295 .350 366 44 76 14 1 12 39 37 3 67 0 0.5
2023 .206 .294 .362 354 43 73 14 1 13 39 36 3 70 0 0.6
2024 .206 .295 .368 209 26 43 8 1 8 23 22 2 72 -1 0.3
2025 .207 .299 .374 203 25 42 8 1 8 23 22 2 74 -1 0.4
2026 .213 .299 .387 225 28 48 10 1 9 26 23 2 77 -2 0.4
2027 .211 .297 .370 246 30 52 10 1 9 27 25 2 73 -3 0.2

So, what does it all mean? The Blue Jays are a little better than they were yesterday, which is progress. The problem is that the New York Yankees, one of their biggest competitors for a Wild Card spot, are also better than they were yesterday and by a considerably larger margin. After last night’s Yankees win over the Rays and Toronto’s split doubleheader, the Jays playoff probability has dropped to 23% by ZiPS, compared to the 30% it was last week. The trade itself is good, but if Toronto really wants to go hard after a postseason berth this year, they’re going to have to make a bigger move than this in the next 24 hours.

Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for from 2010-2018, a regular guest on a number of radio shows and podcasts, and a voting BBWAA member. He also maintains a terrible Twitter account at @DSzymborski.

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1 year ago

A benign move used by Ross Atkins as window dressing for the fans. Jays aren’t going anywhere.

1 year ago
Reply to  mattorious

Or, a necessary, and essentially costless, move for a team trying to make the playoffs with one of the worst bullpens in the majors. Really can’t see what’s not to like for the Jays here!

1 year ago
Reply to  mattorious

I can’t tell if I’m agreeing or disagreeing with you, but this move is better than them selling out for a wild card spot that they’re very, very unlikely to get. They need to focus on trying to extend Ray (and maybe Matz) so they can try again next year. There’s no harm in swapping guys you don’t want to roster anymore for a reliever who is better than who you currently have.