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September 1, 2009

Future Shock

Rocking with Hanson

by Kevin Goldstein

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I'm going to present four rookie pitchers to you:


Dude Age Throws Height ERA+ K/9 oppBA
 A    22  RHP    6-6   133  7.4  .239
 B    22  LHP    6-1    80  3.9  .270
 C    21  RHP    6-3    67  5.2  .285
 D    20  LHP    6-4    71  6.8  .302

One of these pitchers has won 305 big-league games to go with ten All-Star selections and a pair of Cy Youngs. Another went to eight All-Star games, won a Cy Young, and later became one of the best closers in the game. A third had a pair of 18-win seasons and 10 post-season starts before he was 24, although his career was derailed by arm injuries. Those three are Tom Glavine, John Smoltz, and Steve Avery (Dudes B, C, and D respectively). The guy with the actually good stats? The only one with an ERA above league average in his rookie campaign, and significantly at that? Player A is Tommy Hanson.

Hanson's fantastic rookie season has Braves fans awfully excited for good reason, but his performance when compared to that mighty trio is no indicator that Hanson with be better, or even as good as anyone from the rest of that group, as a developmental philosophy with Hanson creates a far greater difference between Hanson and the three than any kind of talent measurement.

Hanson was the breakout pitcher of the year in the minors last year, going from good prospect to great one by striking out 163 batters in 138 innings while allowing only 85 hits. He followed that with arguably the best year ever by a pitcher in the Arizona Fall League, as he allowed just two runs over 28 2/3 innings while striking out 49 and limiting batters to a .105 batting average. Of the 71 right-handed hitters he faced in the desert, six got hits-and 38 struck out. Multiple scouts who saw Hanson in Arizona ended up comparing him to Smoltz as a power right-hander who backed up his fastball with a variety of quality secondary offerings.

The hype continued going into the spring, where he continued to pitch well, but the Braves had a master plan in mind. After enjoying a tremendous amount of success at Double-A working with minor league pitching coach Derek Botelho, the Braves wanted Hanson to continue to work with Botelho, moving both to Triple-A Gwinett in 2009. There wasn't one specific area that needed improvement as much as the team wanted to see him throw more strikes and continue with the more aggressive, attacking style; he began to dominate under Botelho's watchful eye. The goal from the beginning was for him to start the year in Triple-A and to end up with somewhere around 120 big-league innings. It's a plan they've stuck to.

So does Hanson's performance far outstripping that of three players who turned into outstanding performers any kind of indication of a monster career? No, not really. It's not that Hanson doesn't have a chance to become an ace-level pitcher, he certainly does, it's just that comparing rookie performances is a fool's errand, since not all arrive under the same circumstances or with the same level of preparedness.

The Braves were a team that entered the 2009 season with the expectations of contending for a playoff spot. In their minds, they couldn't afford to take a risk with a player like Hanson in the big leagues, and having him at Triple-A would give him a much better chance of hitting the ground running, with players like Glavine and Smoltz given no such advantage. Those late-'80s Braves teams were downright awful, and whether those rookies won or lost would have little few ramifications for the team's playoff chances.

Neither philosophy is right, it's more of a reflection of team circumstances and 40-man roster considerations than anything else, but even so, the makeup of the individual players is a huge part of the equation as well. In a conversation with former Braves general manager John Schuerholz for the book It Ain't Over 'Til It's Over, we talked about how the 1984 Royals (then under his direction) went with a very inexperienced pitching staff; Schuerholz would later do the same with Avery, Glavine, and Smoltz, and he talked about how important character was when throwing a player into the fire. He didn't necessarily think those three would win immediately, but rather that they would be able to learn from their missteps and allow the upcoming struggles to turn them into better pitchers down the road, as opposed to hurting their confidence and hindering their development.

The lesson here is that not all rookies are created equally, especially in terms of timing, and one should always measure them on a true scale of readiness as opposed to looking at the numbers alone.

A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider Insider.

Kevin Goldstein is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Kevin's other articles. You can contact Kevin by clicking here

Related Content:  Tommy Hanson

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Ahead in the Count: Ho... (09/01)
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