A pitcher with the versatility to start or come out of the bullpen comes in quite handy over the course of a 162-game season, and the ex-Jacksonville State sinker-baller showed he can do both in his big-league debut in 2013.
Less than a month from reporting to Maryvale, Ariz., on Feb. 15 for spring training, the right-hander stands prepared for both possibilities.
“It’s a lot of the reason I got there (to the big leagues),” Hand said. “I’ve done everything. I’ve closed games. I’ve set up games. I’ve been in blowout games and started games. I’ve thrown middle relief, long relief throughout my career.
“Usually, those guys in the minor leagues kind of fizzle right on out, but it’s weird to think that was breeding me to do what I did in the big leagues this year.”
Hand was back at JSU on Sunday, joining former Gamecock and Jacksonville High star Todd Cunningham, now in the Atlanta Braves’ organization, as keynote speakers for the annual Joe Campbell Baseball Clinic, a free clinic for kids 6-14.
Hand and Cunningham were among five current or recent pro players present at the clinic. Also present were ex-JSU and Cherokee County standout Coty Blanchard, now in the Tampa Bay Devil Rays’ organization, ex-Jacksonville High star Shed Long, now in the Cincinnati Reds organization, and ex-Gamecock and former Los Angeles Dodgers minor leaguer Andrew Edge.
Hand, who starred at Hatton High in North Alabama, was drafted in the 14th round by Milwaukee in 2007 and spent six years in the minors before getting the call to Milwaukee during the 2013 season. He debuted in relief against Pittsburgh on May 26 and got his first big-league start against Atlanta on June 22.
It was a good start. He worked 4 2/3 innings in a 2-0 victory over the Braves, allowing two hits and striking out three batters with one walk.
He finished the season with the Brewers, going 1-5 with a 3.69 ERA, 37 strikeouts and 21 walks. His 31 appearances included seven starts.
Hand had just four starts in three previous seasons, none in 2011. He was used solely in relief by Triple-A Nashville in 2013, before getting the call up.
“The last time I started full-time was 2009, and that was at Huntsville in Double-A,” Hand said. “Now, all of a sudden, I’m in the big-league rotation, and I thought, ‘Well, you just try to make the best of it.’”
JSU coach Jim Case said he was “scared” when he heard the Brewers were planning to try Hand as a starter last season.
“I was scared of what might could happen, because he hadn’t started in so long,” said Case, who attended Hand’s start against the Braves in Milwaukee. “Maybe he’s unsuccessful (and loses confidence), but it didn’t happen.”
The way things have evolved for Hand, he has shown himself to be a reliable swing pitcher.
“That, to me, is the beauty for him,” Case said. “The value he brings is the ability to do both (start and relieve).
“He can pitch three days in a row. He can spot start and give you five or six innings, and maybe he can do more, but I don’t think they look at him to be in the top five in that rotation.
“But things happen. It’s nice to have somebody that you can put in and, instead of they give you three and then you ruin your bullpen for the next 10 days? If they can give you five or six, then you’re OK.”
Hand is a blue-collar pitcher, relying mostly on his sinker and curve to induce ground balls.
He’s also resilient, which he showed by sticking with baseball. He admits he felt like he was “spinning my wheels” through his last four years in the minors, but the 27-year-old never forgot a promise he made to his dad to pitch on TV by the time he’s 27.
“He’s made it through determination and hard work,” Case said. “He has really kind of just not given up, and that’s his deal.
“Then, when he got the opportunity at the major-league level, I think he earned a lot of respect because he did a lot of things for them.”
Hand said he’ll go to spring training knowing that he’s not guaranteed a spot on the big-league roster. Then again, he gave the Brewers’ organization 104 innings over 51 combined appearances in Nashville and Milwaukee in 2013 and showed himself to be a plug-in guy for lots of spots.
“It’s a weird role to have,” Hand said. “It’s a role you have you have to have a short memory in, because you may throw four innings this one night, and then the next night you pitch may be two nights later, and you’ll throw two outs.
“With that many different roles, you just kind of take every day like a new day and never change your perspective. Go out there and get guys out.”
Sports columnist Joe Medley: 256-235-3576, email@example.com. On Twitter @jmedley_star.