Brad Hand squandered his third straight save opportunity on Wednesday against the Mets. The Cleveland Indians must explore the possibility of a role change.
Carlos Santana crushed a go-ahead home run in the 10th inning of Wednesday night’s duel with the Mets. It was his third such blast in the ninth inning or later in less than three weeks. Unlike his first two, the one he hit on Wednesday wasn’t enough to give the Cleveland Indians a win.
In an eerily similar yet upside-down turn of events, Brad Hand took the mound to close the game after Santana’s heroics, as opposed to before them. The Tribe’s 3-2 lead in extras wouldn’t last very long.
Amed Rosario led off the bottom of the 10th with a double, which is somewhere near the very bottom of the list of what the Indians were hoping for to start the inning. After a sacrifice bunt to move Rosario to third, the Indians intentionally walked Peter Alonso to set up a double play situation.
Hand was able to induce the ground ball he needed to Michael Conforto, but then perhaps the single most frustrating play of the Indians’ 2019 season transpired instead. Santana fielded the ball and rocketed it to second. Francisco Lindor came across the bag ready to throw a missile of his own back to first to end the game. But nobody was there.
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The ball was grounded too far away from the bag for Santana to get back in time to set up for a return throw. Meanwhile, Hand never broke toward first to cover for him, thinking Santana was going to throw out the tying run at home instead. Rosario scored, and two hitters later, J.D. Davis laced a single into left to win it.
Yet another admirable performance out of Adam Plutko went by the wayside. Another magical moment off the bat of Cleveland’s 2019 MVP, Santana, was rendered meaningless. And now the Indians are in danger of being swept by the Mets, with Noah Syndergaard looming on the mound tonight.
The worst part about it all is that if the Indians turn that double play, Hand just saved a one-run game, on the road, against the heart of a dangerous lineup–after giving up a leadoff double, no less. Instead, he’ll have to wait for another day to turn things around.
In Mandy Bell’s postgame report for MLB.com, Terry Francona is quoted as follows: “We can’t run from Brad. To get where we want to go, we’ve got to get him hot.”
Francona is simultaneously right and wrong in the same sentence. The Indians don’t stand much of a chance in the final month of the season–or the playoffs–without an effective Hand on the mound.
However, at face value, that quote can be interpreted as an insistence that Hand will continue to be sent out to close games even though he is clearly struggling in virtually every facet of his approach. Some within the realm of Tribe-related discussions, myself included, have been inclined to give Hand the benefit of the doubt for longer than others.
The closer role is a psychologically taxing one, and there is a cumulative effect of logging nearly all of one’s innings in high-pressure situations that can take a toll over time.
But the Indians have now officially reached the point at which they can no longer afford to go with Hand in save situations just because he is the default option. When a hitter is struggling, he moves down in the lineup. When a player on the fringe of the 25-man roster isn’t playing well, he is demoted to the minors.
It shouldn’t be any different for a closer, and while demoting Hand is not an option, a temporary role change would suit both him and the Indians well.
The Indians have at least two other relievers who have consistently come up big late in games in Tyler Clippard and Nick Goody. Clippard has logged 20 innings since the All-Star break, a span in which he owns a 2.25 ERA and is allowing a .222/.253/.403 slash line.
Goody has been even more effective in the second half, sporting a 1.56 ERA and a .150/.257/.267 slash line against. Clippard and Goody are striking out opposing hitters at 25% and 24.3% rates, respectively, and Clippard almost never issues walks.
Even Nick Wittgren represents a more stable option than Hand at the moment. If there were no other reliable arms at Francona’s disposal, then doubling down on Hand would make sense, for better or worse. But with other quality relievers available, there is no logical reason not to give at least one of them a chance to close out a game in the immediate future.
There is also no reason to assign any level of permanence to a potential role change for Hand. Using him in some lower-leverage situations while he figures things out should not necessarily mean he is out as Cleveland’s closer for good. It would simply serve as a less dangerous means of giving him the chance to get right.
Hand could surely benefit from a confidence boost, and perhaps mowing down the bottom of a few lineups in the seventh or eighth inning over a stretch will provide that. Moreover, if his bullpen mates are successful in the ninth, a tremendous weight would lift off his shoulders.
Baseball is about knowing one’s teammates are there to pick up the slack when things aren’t going well. A development in which Hand could potentially realize it isn’t entirely on him to close out games would alleviate some of the pressure he’s undoubtedly feeling by now.
Adding another wrinkle to this equation is the possibly imminent return of Carlos Carrasco. If he’s declared medically fit to pitch in Major League Baseball games in the near future, he’s as good a bet as anyone in the organization to see a few save opportunities.
With the way things are shaping up in the standings, there is a grim reality facing somebody in the American League: At least one team is probably going to win 90-plus games and miss the playoffs anyway. The Indians cannot afford to be that team just because a guy is where he is on a depth chart. A change must be made, even if only for the time being.