May 8, 2013
Painting the Black
Last season the Angels missed the postseason in part due to a second-rate rotation. General manager Jerry Dipoto tried an in-season fix by acquiring Zack Grienke for a trio of prospects. But at season's end Greinke left for fatter checks. In order to entertain keeping Greinke, Dipoto dismantled half of his remaining rotation. He shipped Ervin Santana to the Royals and nearly dealt Dan Haren to the Cubs before non-tendering him once the proposed trade fell through.
Rebuffed by Greinke, Dipoto instead signed Josh Hamilton, but not before adding two other starters. He signed the down-market innings eater Joe Blanton, then pulled off a riskier deal by trading former closer-of-the-future Jordan Walden to the Braves for former ace-of-the-future Tommy Hanson. (Dipoto later made another trade, this one of the intradivisional sort, to bring in Jason Vargas.) To call it a challenge trade is to partake in revisionist history. The deal looked riskier for the Angels than it did for the Braves all along.
Years earlier Hanson looked like the next great Braves pitcher, or at least the next great Braves scouting story—though Brandon Beachy had taken both titles by the time of the trade. Hanson was the product of the draft-and-follow rule, which benefited diligent area scouts. Atlanta selected the big-bodied Riverside, California product in the 22nd round. Because Hanson attended a community college, the Braves retained his rights up until the next draft. They followed his progress—hence the rule's name—and inked him the following May. There was plenty to like.
Hanson looked the part of a power pitcher. He had the frame and the velocity, with a big looping curveball to keep batters off balance. In short time Hanson added the results to go with the projection. He never posted an ERA above 3.32 at any stop during his minor-league career. When the Braves promoted him he continued to dominate. Double-A is where the real prospects are separated from the phonies; Hanson struck out 114 batters in 98 innings of work as a 21-year-old before moving on.
During Hanson's final prospect days he elicited comparisons to John Smoltz. Dipoto did not acquire the Smoltz doppelganger—if anything the original Smoltz might throw harder than Hanson does nowadays. With the Angels off to another disappointing start for various reasons—you'd be excused for mistaking their bench and bullpen for that of their Triple-A affiliate—it would seem that Hanson is low on the blame list. After all, Hanson's ERA+ is better than it was last season, and he's recorded quality starts in three of his five starts. But if these last two starts are any indication, then expect him to jockey for better positioning in the coming weeks.
The red flags with Hanson start, as they so often do, with velocity. Hanson used to throw around 93-94 mph, even as recently as 2010, according to Brooks Baseball. In his two most recent starts Hanson has pitched in the 84-87 mph range while maxing out at 88. It's not as though Hanson is locating well, either. An estimated three-fourths of Hanson's fastballs in his last start were at waist-level or higher. It was a lower rate against the Athletics but not by much. Espousing well-below-average velocity and below-average command is inviting big-league hitters to pad their stats.
Credit Hanson with this much: he knows he's in trouble. So Hanson has tried to cover his tracks with an increased quotient of sliders for a second consecutive season. He always tried keeping batters off guard with an early slider or one in a hitter-friendly count. But this season he's thrown more first-pitch sliders to right-handed batters than first-pitch fastballs (49 percent versus 41 percent). When a right-handed batter is ahead he has nearly a 50/50 shot of guessing correctly between Hanson's fastball (53 percent) and his slider (47 percent). Left-handed hitters can also get in on the fun.
There's a difference between pitching backward as a strategical choice and doing it out of necessity. Hanson falls in the latter category. He almost has to pitch as though his fastball is a last resort, and when he does use his fastball he's liable to dig a deeper hole. Hanson is a junkballer. There's no choice between fast and slow, it's slow and slower now. It's not too often these types succeed, and those who do can hit a sidling fly with a quarter from a mile away. Hanson doesn't have that level of precision.
The options for Hanson are limited. A change in mechanics is risky and could weaken his stuff farther. Unfortunately his current mechanics appear harmful to him as well. It's not just the bow-and-arrow effect employed by Hanson, but the high release point, too—both staples of Hanson's delivery since his debut. As Doug Thorburn wrote in the Starting Pitcher Guide, "[High] levels of shoulder abduction have been connected with shoulder injuries." Sure enough Hanson has seen two DL stints caused by shoulder impingement. Hanson has suffered a loss in velocity and increases in home runs and hits allowed, along with other concomitants of shoulder injuries.
Of course Dipoto knew the risks when he executed the trade. He knew Hanson may not approach his past performance, and stood a chance of declining further. Despite Hanson's early success it seems Dipoto may be on the hunt for rotation help in order to salvage a capsizing season again.