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October 8, 2010

Playoff Prospectus

The Development of Tommy Hanson

by David Laurila

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When Tommy Hanson faces the Giants tonight in Game One of the NLDS, one of the Braves' right-hander's biggest weapons will be the slider. According to PITCHf/x, Hanson threw his slider 27.8 percent of the time this season, up from 18.7 last year, and one of the highest percentages in the National League. Just how that impacted his performance is a story for another day; the focus here will be the development of his slider, which was reintroduced to his repertoire just two years ago.

“The organization didn’t let me throw a slider in A-ball,” explained Hanson, who began his professional career in 2006, a year after being taken as a draft-and-follow out of Riverside Community College in California. “I threw a slider in high school and in college, but the Braves didn’t want me to throw it until I got to Double-A. I think that’s pretty much the organizational philosophy. They’re geared toward throwing more of a curveball than a slider.”

Kurt Kemp, Atlanta’s director of player development, concurred, but stopped short of citing organizational philosophy for the decision.

“When he came here, we worked more to develop his curveball,” Kemp said. “I strongly feel that both are quality pitches for him at the major league level—he’s got a quality curveball and a quality slider—but we spent a lot more time working with him on the development of that curveball during the early part of his development. We added his slider back in about the time he went to Double-A.

“[Temporarily shelving the slider] isn’t a blanket policy. We don’t take things away from pitchers. We try to work within the framework of what they have to work with, and which pitching package we think is going to help them be most successful. At this point, with our current pitching program, we don’t specifically say, ‘You can’t do this,’ or ‘You can’t do that.’

“In his case, he had kind of a hybrid breaking ball. I remember scouting him, and we really saw that curveball start to develop. When it really started to come on for him, and as he matured and felt more comfortable with his slider being added back into his repertoire on an everyday basis, he was in a good position to succeed. He had innings under his belt, he was 21 rather than just 19, and the meshing of his fastball command, his much-improved curveball, and the addition of the slider, combined to catapult him forward and up to the big leagues.”

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The slider wasn’t simply reintroduced to Hanson’s repertoire, it was also fine tuned. According to the big right-hander, Double-A [and now Triple-A] pitching coach Derek Botelho deserves much of the credit.

“I threw a curveball in high school, but it was more of a slurve,” explained Hanson. “I threw it off my index finger and once I got to Derek Botelho in Double-A, he kind of switched me up. At first I went through a couple of starts where it was a little bit rough; I didn’t have the best outings, But I started throwing both my slider and my curveball off my middle finger, which is your strongest finger, and for the most part it made them a lot sharper. It made them better pitches.”

Asked to elaborate on the mechanics and velocity of his slider, Hanson said he likes to keep things simple.

“To be honest, I just throw it and that’s how it comes out,” shrugged Hanson. “At the last second, I kind of just throw my fingers to the ground and whatever speed it comes out, that’s how it comes out. Usually it’s around the mid-80s.

“If I’m throwing my slider to a righty, I just aim for the middle of the plate and at the last second just pop my wrist. If I’m throwing a backdoor slider to a lefty, I kind of aim for the chalk line. It’s the same pitch, it’s just what I’m aiming for. What I do with my wrist, and how it comes out of my hand, is the same.

"To be honest with you, with all of my pitches, I just try to throw strikes. I feel that with my stuff, if I go out there and do that, for the most part it is going to work out for the better. I consider myself a power pitcher, so sometimes when I get late in the count I try to hump up a little bit and throw a little harder than I normally do. I’m not a big location guy; I don’t try to pick corners or anything like that. I’m going out there and attacking hitters.

“I try to keep pitching as simple as possible. I just go out there and try to throw strikes; that’s all I try to do.”

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Hanson believes in taking a simple approach, but he also understands the nuances of pitching. He attacks hitters, but he is by no means just a thrower.

“I’ll watch as much video as I can,” Hanson said. “I get the scouting reports and try to work them into my game plan as much as possible. I talk to Mac [catcher Brian McCann], I talk to the pitching coach, and I try to mix all of that in. I try to stay with my strengths, but at the same time I want to know the hitters’ weaknesses and how to attack them in that way.

“When you first get up here, guys don’t really know you, but at some point they begin to make adjustments. There is a lot of video out there, and it becomes a huge chess game because guys are always watching it. They can look up every time you pitch. In the minor leagues it was throw a fastball to get ahead, throw a slider for strike two, and then a bounce a curveball and they swing at it. That’s not the case anymore. You’ve got to mix it up and not attack everybody the same. The first, second, third time through the order, you have to mix it up. If they’re sitting on a pitch, they’re going to hit it, for the most part, so it’s more about adjustments up here. You have to command your pitches, throw them all for strikes, and have a good game plan every time out.”

Said Kemp, "He knows what he‘s doing out there. I’m usually with our minor league clubs, but I do still get a chance to see him pitch. He commands his pitches, and he’s got three quality pitches. He’ll use his changeup on occasion, but there’s no question that his fastball, curveball and slider are the three primary pitches that he uses. He is pitching the same way he did when we saw him in [Double-A] Mississippi, the Arizona Fall League, and in [Triple-A] Gwinnett. Before that, you wouldn’t have seen him throwing that slider, because he was working on developing his curveball. But from the time he started to take off, this is the type of pitcher he has been. He‘s good, and the slider is one of the reasons.”

Related Content:  Tommy Hanson,  Slider,  Repertoire

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