Ross Atkins has stated that the Toronto Blue Jays will consider looking outside the organization to add pitching during this off-season. Brad Hand and Blake Treinen are two free-agent relief pitchers worthy of consideration.
Featured Image Courtesy Of DaveMe Images. Prints Available For Purchase
When the current off-season began, FanGraphs listed Liam Hendriks as the number one free-agent relief pitcher. Further down the list, FanGraphs ranked Brad Hand as the #3 free-agent reliever and Blake Treinen as #4. History has taught us that a reliever’s performance can vary noticeably from one season to the next. Are Hand and Treinen worth the risk on a short or mid-term contract?
The structure of the analysis is as follows:
- A review of various metrics for Hand and Treinen
- An estimate of what a reasonable contract would be for these two relievers
- The arguments for and against signing Hand and Treinen
During the 2020 campaign, southpaw Hand was primarily a slider (52%) and four-seam fastball (38%) pitcher. The velocity of his fastball (91.4 mph) has been in decline since 2017 (93.5 mph) and was below the MLB average (93.5 mph) for 2020 relievers. The key to Hand’s success is the excellent horizontal movement of his slider and fastball.
The highlights from Table 1 are as follows:
- Hand has consistently had one of the higher strikeout rates among relievers. His K% has ranged between the 92nd percentile (2017 and 2018) and 87th (2020).
- However, since 2016 Hand has not been a top strike-thrower, as evidence by his 54th, 51st, and 66th percentile ranking in 2017, 2018, and 2020, respectively. Notably, 2019’s 91st percentile ranking was an aberration from recent history.
- Starting in 2017, Hand posted ERA marks that graded out as 91st, 73rd, 70th, and 85th percentile.
- Hand’s SIERA has consistently been excellent with a low of 88th percentile in 2020 and a 93rd in 2017
The highlights from Table 2 are as follows:
- Hand’s BA, xBA, SLG, wOBA, and xwOBA (xERA) were excellent in 2017 and 2020
- The 2019 season was middle-of-the-pack like for Hand.
- His BA, xBA, SL, xSLG, and wOBA were no higher than the 62nd percentile in the 2019 campaign.
The pitch-splits highlights from Table 3 are as follows:
- In 2018 and 2019, Hand was not effective against right-handed batters.
- His OPS and ISO against right-handed hitters were just below the MLB average in 2018 but crept above average in 2019
- In 2020, Hand’s OPS and ISO against were well below the MLB average.
- However, the 2020 sample size was small. Therefore, the related caution concerning conclusions based upon small sample sizes applies in this situation.
- The relatively poor splits when facing right-handed batters is an issue for the Blue Jays if they consider Hand for the closer role.
- The LHP-RHB split is particularly relevant because right-handed hitters have averaged 59% of all plate appearances during the 2017-2020 time frame.
Hand has been a very productive relief pitcher in recent seasons. However, as his fastball velocity has declined, he shows signs that the lefty-right split has become more of a performance factor. This development could indicate that Hand will be more suited to a set-up/situation role than that of a closer.
During the 2020 season, right-hand throwing Treinen was chiefly a sinker (56%) and slider (26%) pitcher. The velocity on his sinker is 96.9 mph, and Brooks Baseball described the pitch as a worm-killer. The pitch has above-average vertical and horizontal movement; his slider has an above-average vertical drop.
The highlights from Table 1 are as follows:
Treinen is the poster boy of relief pitcher inconsistency. I will examine this issue in more detail in the Reliever Contract Risk section.
- 2018 was Treinen’s best season of the 2017-2020 period
- His K% percentile ranking was 87th, which is excellent
- Treinen’s ERA, FIP, SIERA. Strike% and Hard Hit% ranked no worse than the 94th percentile
- 2019 was an awful campaign for Treinen
- For example, his percentile ranking in ERA, FIP, and SIERA were 13th, 9th, and 1st, respectively
- 2020 was a bit of a bounce-back season for Treinen; although his ERA ranked in the 39th percentile, his FIP and SIERA were 71st
The highlights from Table 2 are as follows:
- Treinen’s BA, xBA, SLG, xSLG, wOBA, and xwOBA (xERA) were not lower than the 88th percentile in 2018
- His xERA in 2019 was 9th percentile
- Although Treinen’s BA and xBA were 40th and 41st percentile in 2020, his other metrics were solid
- His SLG, xSLG, wOBA and xwOBA (xERA) were 70th, 81st, 70th, and 72nd, respectively
The pitch-splits highlights from Table 4 are as follows:
- Treinen’s splits are not as pronounced as Hand’s
- He has been better against right-handed batters than the lefties
- However, regardless of the batter’s handedness, Treinen’s average OPS and ISO against has been better than the MLB average
The data, FanGraphs and Statcast’s, supports the view that Treinen is a classic reliever: inconsistent season to season. The question is whether Treinen’s 2021 season will be closer to the 2018 Treinen or the 2019 version. He is a sinker-ball pitcher who induces many ground balls (53.2%), which is more than Hand (39.0%).
The contract estimate
For a detailed explanation of the factors considered in the contract computation, please refer to Appendix A. It is important to note that a reasonable contract value falls within a range of other valid contract values. There is no precise number for a contract estimate; it is not like going to the grocery store to buy broccoli.
Table 5 shows that a reasonable contract for Hand is a two-year, USD 11.7 million deal. This contract value is much lower than other estimates. FanGraphs’ projection was two-years, USD 20 million and Crowdsource (median) supplied a three-year, $27.9 million estimate. MLB Trade Rumors projection was two-years, USD 14 million. The latter three estimates seem excessive. Cleveland placed Hand on waivers in October; no team claimed him and the one-year remaining on his USD 10 million deal.
Table 6 presents the Treinen contract estimate. A reasonable deal would by two-years, USD 8.1 million. However, given Treinen’s inconsistency and age (33), I would suggest that a one-year, 6.3 million contract is appropriate. FanGraphs, Crowdsource (median), and MLB Trade Rumors each offered that a contract length of two years was reasonable. The contract values provided by FanGraphs, Crowdsource (median), and MLB Trade Rumors were USD 18 million, USD 16 million and USD 14 million, respectively.
Reliever contract risk
There exists a specific risk inherent in offering a contract of mid-length or more to a relief pitcher. Namely, the performance of relievers tends to vary noticeably season-to-season.
I determined the numbers below by selecting the top closers in 2015 and then tracking that group’s performance over the next three seasons. I used the same approach for the top closers of 2016. For a description of how the numbers were compiled and calculated, please refer to Appendix B.
- For the 2015 group, the average ERA-percentile ranking deteriorated from 81st percentile to 72nd in 2016 and 2017 and 57th in 2018
- The average FIP-percentile ranking showed a similar pattern of decline, with the 54th slot in 2018
- The performance of the 2016 group was similar.
- The ERA-percentile ranking declined from 90th percentile in 2016 and was 62nd in 2019
- The FIP-percentile deterioration was 94th in 2016 and slipped to 69th in 2019
The results of the analysis above are by no means exhaustive. However, the data is consistent with the recent experience of free-agent closers signing contracts (Craig Kimbrel). The clubs would like a do-over. My view is that teams should be cautious when awarding a deal to a closer that exceeds two years. I believe that a term of one year is appropriate for non-closers such as Hand and Treinen.
Case Arguments for and against signing Hand
- Hand performed very well in 2020
- His 2020 expected metrics were excellent.
- Hand is a strikeout pitcher, which is a plus given that the Blue Jays were poor defensively in 2020 (#29 ranking in DRS)
- Hand’s OPS and ISO against right-handed batters were below average during the 2018-2019 period.
- If Hand continues to struggle against right-handed hitters, he would not be the ideal candidate to be the primary closer.
Case Arguments for and against signing Treinen
- Treinen has produced better ISO metrics than Hand during the 2017-2020 time frame.
- He is a ground ball pitcher, which is a useful attribute if the Blue Jays were to improve their infield defence in 2021
- Treinen has a history of inconsistency season-to-season
The preferred candidate for the Blue Jays bullpen is Hand. He has produced at a higher level than Treinen during the 2017-2020 period. Furthermore, Hand has been more consistent than Treinen. If Hand’s 2021 performance against right-handed batters is closer to 2020 than 2019, Hand could be a closer candidate. However, given the split uncertainty, a one-year contract for Hand is appropriate.
The last word
During the 2017-2020 period, Hand and Treinen have, at times, been outstanding relief pitchers. Hand has been more consistent than Treinen, and for that reason, is a more desirable free-agent target.
*Featured Image Courtesy Of DaveMe Images. Prints Available For Purchase.
HEAD ON OVER TO THE JAYS FROM THE COUCH VS ALS STORE AND GET SOME GREAT SWAG THAT YOU WILL LOOK GREAT IN AND YOU CAN FEEL GREAT ABOUT.
YOU CAN ALSO HEAD TO OUR JAYS FROM THE COUCH VS ALS FUNDRAISING PAGE TO MAKE A TAX DEDUCTIBLE DONATION DIRECTLY TO ALS CANADA.
THANK YOU FOR VISITING JAYS FROM THE COUCH! CHECK US OUT ON TWITTER @JAYSFROMCOUCH AND LIKE US FACEBOOK. BE SURE TO CATCH THE LATEST FROM JAYS FROM THE COUCH RADIO
* * * * *
* * * * *
Bob was a St. Louis Cardinals fan until the Blue Jays arrived on the baseball scene, although he still has a soft spot for the Cards. Similar to straddling the Greenwich Meridian, as depicted in the avatar, Bob applies sabermetrics when applicable, but his heart tells him that Lou Brock belongs in the Hall of Fame.