Some time ago, the Angels attempted to trade Dan Haren to the Cubs in exchange for Carlos Marmol. The Angels had concerns about Haren, and wanted to turn him into something useful. The Cubs had concerns about Marmol, and wanted to turn him into something useful. On paper, the deal looked lopsided in the Cubs’ favor, and so one had to consider that maybe the Angels knew something scary about Haren’s medicals. Sure enough, the deal fell through, and now Haren is a free agent looking for a short-term contract. No one’s going to be ballsy enough to give him a long-term contract.
Friday, the Angels completed sort of the opposite of that Haren/Marmol trade. Instead of the Angels dealing a troubled starter to get a troubled reliever, they’ve dealt the somewhat troubled Jordan Walden to the Braves in exchange for the troubled Tommy Hanson. Unlike with Haren, we don’t have to speculate that something might be up with Hanson, physically — we know that his shoulder has been groaning. The Angels, without question, know that they’re taking a chance, here. They determined, at the cost of Jordan Walden, the chance is worth taking.
One of the worst-kept secrets in baseball is that the Angels have been desperate for starters. It’s been a poorly-kept secret because it wasn’t really intended to be a secret. They dealt away Ervin Santana, they let Dan Haren become a free agent, and they lost Zack Greinke to free agency. From the beginning, word was the Angels badly wanted to get Greinke re-signed, but more recently there’s been talk that the Dodgers are the front-runners, with the Nationals another possibility. Until Greinke makes a decision, we can’t say much of anything, but Greinke re-signing has been far from a guarantee, and the Angels were left with four starters on their depth chart. Two of those starters are Jerome Williams and Garrett Richards. The Angels would like to contend, and in order to contend, the Angels needed to address their starting pitching.
The question, then, is exactly how much better Tommy Hanson makes them. He makes them at least a little better, because he’s a fifth starting pitcher on the roster. Previously there was no one in that slot. But there’s a reason the Braves didn’t have Hanson in their projected rotation, and there’s a reason the Braves gave him up for a reliever, even though he’s under team control another three years. The Tommy Hanson that exists now is similar in many ways to the Tommy Hanson that used to exist before, but when it comes to pitching, there are alarming differences.
Before 2009, Hanson was Baseball America’s fourth-best prospect in the league. Even now, the righty’s only 26, and he just started 31 games for a contending team. The prospect status and initial success gave Hanson lingering name value, but he’s been of dwindling actual value. He’s battled through shoulder discomfort that correlates to an expected velocity drop:
2009: 92.3 mph average fastball
Hanson hasn’t been treated surgically. We can’t definitively tie the softening fastball to the softening shoulder. But it makes a lot of sense, and it doesn’t bode super well going forward. One should note that Hanson’s always drawn some criticism for his mechanics, and I might as well include a .gif:
Some people who think they know about these things don’t like Hanson’s throwing motion, and he does seem to begin slowly before exploding later on. It stands to reason there’s probably something deceptive about his forearm action, but maybe this has been doing Hanson harm. Maybe something else. Hanson hasn’t had surgery yet, but he’s gotten worse, and we don’t know if he’s done getting worse.
What’s important, of course, isn’t Hanson’s average fastball velocity. That’s relevant only insofar as it suggests other things, and what we care about are Hanson’s results when he’s pitching. Interestingly, his contact rate hasn’t really been getting worse. His strikeouts in 2012 were basically the same as they were in 2009 and 2010, when he threw harder. Batted balls are the same, albeit lately there have been more dingers. Hanson’s strike rate is down, though, implying worse command. He might be making more mistakes, and he might have less of a margin of error for those mistakes. He just posted a below-average ERA, a below-average FIP, and a below-average xFIP. His xFIP was actually tied with Ervin Santana’s. That Hanson used to be a tippy-top prospect doesn’t matter anymore. We know a lot more about him than we used to.
Pitchers lose velocity as they age. Bill Petti and Jeff Zimmerman have examined this at length. Hanson’s velocity probably isn’t coming back, and there could be something more sinister than simple aging going on. By performance, most recently Tommy Hanson was mediocre. By various indicators, he could be approaching a fairly significant DL stint. As is, he looks like a capable back-of-the-rotation starter, and he could bounce back to some degree, but he’s going to a more difficult league and the indicators are worrisome. The Angels will hope that there’s meaning in Hanson’s final six 2012 starts, over which he generated 35 strikeouts against just ten walks.
Going the other way is Jordan Walden, and at least for the Angels, Walden won’t feel like much of a loss at all. After beginning the 2012 season as the Angels’ closer, Walden was quickly demoted, and after a midseason DL trip, Walden wound up relegated to low-leverage, infrequent relief. It seems meaningful that the Angels both wanted to improve their bullpen this offseason, and were extremely willing to send Jordan Walden somewhere else. Walden must not have been a favorite of theirs.
Yet the numbers are fine. Walden was, statistically, the same pitcher in 2012 as he was in 2011, and in 2011 he was an All-Star closer. He still threw hard, he still missed bats, and he still issued a few too many walks. Walden has his blemishes, but as always, it’s the overall results that matter most, and he’s been a better-than-average reliever. With a weird and unique throwing motion of his own:
It’s worth noting that Walden’s own average fastball velocity has dropped more than two ticks since breaking in in 2010. It’s still up there, though, and the results speak for themselves. Walden will clearly be behind Craig Kimbrel and Jonny Venters on the Braves’ bullpen depth chart, but he fits in the sixth and seventh innings, and he can help to shorten games. As Hanson is going to a more challenging league, Walden’s going to an easier one, so he could be of real value, even as a middle reliever. And for whatever it’s worth, he’s under contract another four years.
As a simple rule of thumb, it’s oftentimes a good move to deal a reliever for a starter. As another simple rule of thumb, one shouldn’t stick to simple rule of thumbs, because everything should be treated on a case-by-case basis. The Angels pretty clearly weren’t big on Walden, so they added a talented starting pitcher effectively for free. The Braves pretty clearly weren’t big on Hanson, so they added a talented relief pitcher effectively for free, freeing up payroll space to go after another outfielder. The Angels had their reasons for being down on Walden and the Braves had their reasons for being down on Hanson, and the Braves’ reasons strike me as being more compelling. Hanson’s been throwing slower, he’s been getting worse, and I don’t know why we should believe those trends are going to stop. Hanson’s top-prospect days are well behind him.
It’s not a bad trade for the Angels, who just needed a starter. It’s not a bad trade for the Braves, who had no use for Hanson. Middle relievers can be only so valuable. But these days, the same could be said of Tommy Hanson, and after adding one starter, you better believe the Angels are still going to be looking for another, better one.