- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 26, 2021

Everything felt the same to Brad Hand last season — his windup, his release — but for some reason, when the radar gun picked up his fastball and the scoreboard flashed the speed, the number displayed was a tick slower than usual.

In 2018, the left-handed reliever’s fastball hung around 94 mph, according to FanGraphs. But in 2020, even as he racked up an MLB-best 16 saves with the Cleveland Indians, that velocity dropped on average 2 mph.

“Trying to get that dialed up this offseason was one of my biggest priorities,” said Hand, who joined the Washington Nationals on a one-year deal and met virtually with the media for the first time Tuesday.

Without that extra juice on his fastball, Hand learned more about himself as a pitcher. He’s never been afraid of making adjustments — he transitioned from a starter to a reliever and developed a slider in the middle of his career — so Hand worked with what he had. If his fastball was stuck at 92 mph, so be it. He’d just be more precise on the edges of the zone, keeping batters off balance by pinpointing pitches rather than blowing them past. And it worked, resulting in another consistent year in which he finished with a 2.05 ERA and 0.773 WHIP.

“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.”

With Hand’s addition, the back end of Washington’s bullpen appears to be bolstered. There’s Hand, the lone lefty in the group. But a combination of Will Harris, Tanner Rainey and Daniel Hudson can also chip in high-leverage, late-game innings for manager Dave Martinez.

Hand still produced strong performances in the coronavirus-altered 2020 campaign, but he wants to rediscover his fastball velocity. His offseason training program began earlier as a result, working out at the Cressey Sports Performance facility in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida.

He’s already thrown several bullpen sessions and expects to face live batters next week. And because he’s often at the Cressey Sports Performance facility, he already knows a few of his new teammates — the Nationals’ spring training facility is in nearby West Palm Beach.

Hand saw starter Patrick Corbin there on Tuesday morning, and he’s seen starters Max Scherzer and Austin Voth around, too. He and Scherzer threw together when MLB was on pause before last season, keeping their arms fresh for whenever the campaign would begin.

“It’s definitely nice knowing some guys before you even show up to spring training,” Hand said. “When you show up to spring training and you don’t know anybody, it makes it a little bit difficult. But knowing a few guys there already, it’ll be an easy transition.”

When Hand broke into the league, it came as a starter for the Marlins. Once he was claimed off waivers by the San Diego Padres, Hand cemented his move to the bullpen. He began to experiment with a slider, turning away from a curveball he found to be difficult to control.

That slider has become an integral part of his arsenal; according to Baseball Savant, Hand throws his slider 51.4% of the time. Buoyed by his fastball-slider combination, Hand earned all-star nods in 2017, 2018 and 2019 — recording 32 and 34 saves, respectively, in the latter two years.

Last season was another strong display as a closer. But wherever Martinez deploys him for the Nationals, Hand said he won’t mind.

“I’ve always approached them the same, whether it’s the sixth, seventh, eighth or ninth,” Hand said. “That’s crunch time. Starters are out of the game, they’re handing it over to us to finish it off. I think just as a group, as a bullpen, you’ve just got to have the mindset to just get three outs and hand it off to the next guy.”

At this point in his career, the 30-year-old Hand values the chance to play for a contender. He pointed to the moves general manager Mike Rizzo has already made, improving the lineup with Josh Bell and Kyle Schwarber. Hand mentioned the strength of the starting rotation, the one he’ll relieve in big moments.

Hand was another move from Rizzo that could serve Washington well, adding to a bullpen that’s been a detriment in the past.

“Obviously, this is going to be one of the tougher divisions in baseball, competition-wise,” Hand said. “We’re going to have to be ready to go and prepared for that, but I like our chances.”

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