MILWAUKEE — Complacency is dangerous in any profession, but just small doses can be killer for a professional athlete.
Cruising through the minor leagues, Donovan Hand was already in Double-A just one season after being drafted in the 14th round of the 2007 draft. A trip to Milwaukee was right around the corner, or so he thought.
“I thought this game was easy,” Hand said. “As soon as you think this game is easy it will humble you in a hurry. It was kind of what happened, but I learned it the hard way.”
Hand stopped working as hard, his body wasn’t where it needed to be and his performance suffered. Four years later he was still sitting in Triple-A. Even after a strong showing in spring training this season, Hand was the final pitcher cut from the bullpen.
Instead of wondering what could have been if he had taken the game more seriously years ago, the 27-year-old has owned up to his mistakes, put his head down and worked to overcome them. When the Milwaukee Brewers needed help in long relief, Hand got the call in late May.
“It stinks to do it that way,” Hand said. “I wish I could have knew it before, but I learned it, went through it and it has made me a better player from that time on.”
It’s hard to explain how valuable Hand has been to the Brewers this season, mostly because his overall numbers are solid, but not eye-popping. Hand has a 3.44 ERA in 12 relief appearances, but lately has been forced to start, something he hasn’t done over an extended period of time since 2009.
With injuries depleting Milwaukee’s starting rotation, Hand has been one of the stabilizing forces. A rough outing in his last start raised his ERA to 4.17 in seven starts, but Hand’s time in the rotation was encouraging.
As Marco Estrada and Yovani Gallardo return, Hand is the odd man out in the rotation. He’s headed back to the bullpen for the time being, but it certainly isn’t because he failed in the role.
“He throws strikes, which his huge for me,” Brewers manager Ron Roenicke said. “I’d be confident to put him in with the bases loaded because he’d throw strikes. And if that guy gets on base he’s going to have to get a hit to get on base. A lot of that is because he throws a slow curveball for a strike. He’s got a good sinker, but he can also throw a four-seamer. And he’s got a slider he commands really well. “
With Hand and right-hander Alfredo Figaro the two finalists for the final bullpen spot, the Brewers decided to take a chance on Figaro’s raw stuff. Hand went down to Nashville and worked as the long reliever, knowing he had an opportunity to finally earn his trip to the big leagues if he pitched well.
From being the final cut in spring training to getting seven starts in Milwaukee’s rotation, Hand’s season has been full of crazy events. What his year hasn’t included was a trip back to the minor leagues and one isn’t on the horizon. While 2013 has been a lost season record-wise for the Brewers, players like Hand beginning to establish themselves a future pieces is somewhat of a silver lining.
“It’s always nice to get off to a good start,” Hand said. “The more time goes on, the more comfortable I get with my surroundings here, more comfortable with the game plans and stuff like that. There’s a lot more that goes into it here than the minor leagues. There’s a lot more information you can process if you learn how to use it. The main thing is to keep getting more comfortable.”
At first, Hand’s time in the rotation was supposed to be short, but he performed so well early on and the injuries kept piling up. A starter throughout his time at Jacksonville State University and early on in the minor leagues, Hand knew how to handle himself, but he had to relearn things along the way.
“You are used to working with 40 to 50 pitches at most as the long guy,” Hand said. “Now you have to go out there and throw 92. It’s just staying locked in for that period of time. Yeah, you have to get your arm ready, but you also have to get mentally ready to take on that challenge.
“It’s a different challenge to stay locked in that long. As humans, our attention span is not that long. That’s been my biggest thing and it’s gotten better each outing. A couple of pitches here and there I’ve kind of relaxed and it has gone over the fence. I’ve gotten better in those areas and I just have to keep getting better.”
Does Hand’s future come as a starter or a reliever? That question has yet to be answered.
“I like him both as a starter and a reliever,” Roenicke said. “It’s hard to say (if his future lies) as a starter because I haven’t seen him enough. He really fits the role of a long reliever because he’s very durable. He gives you a little bit of length, but if you want to bring him in for an inning somewhere later in the game I feel comfortable.”
One of the lessons Hand learned through his struggle with complacency was to take baseball and life one day at a time. Back in 2008, Hand was looking too far ahead and it almost came back to bite him.
So, he isn’t worried about if he will pitch out of the bullpen or take the ball every five days in the coming years. Many claim to take things one day at a time, but Hand’s past makes him believable.
“As long as I can put on a Milwaukee Brewers uniform every day, that’s my main concern,” Hand said. “I really don’t (have a preference). I am getting more comfortable as a starter. I’m obviously comfortable in the bullpen. Either way, as long as I can put on this uniform every day and walk out in front of these fans, it’s a pretty good day.”