Once upon a time, Tommy Hanson‘s career seemed like it would be spun into legend. He was one of the best young pitchers in baseball, in one of the best organizations. Now, heading into his age-27 season, his story seems more like a particularly cruel choose-your-own-adventure story. Shoulder injuries will do that. On Monday, he agreed to a deal with the Rangers. There are conflicting reports as I write this as to whether it is a minor league or major league deal. Either way, this will be Hanson’s third team in three years, and if things don’t work out for him in Texas, this could be his last chance.
That is not to imply that Hanson has some sort of tragic career. Far from it. If you slice and dice enough data, you can find plenty of comparable cases to Hanson. By the end of his age-24 season, which was his third season in the majors, Hanson had crossed the 450-inning threshold in his career. Since the expansion era started in 1961, there have been 105 other pitchers who have accomplished such a feat. To wit:
|Pitchers with 450+ IP, First Three Seasons, Age-24 or Younger, 1961-Present|
* = Active Pitcher
As you can see, most of these guys went on to have long careers, and many of them are still having them. A full 85 of the pitchers here tossed at least 1,000 innings, and Art Mahaffey was close enough to call him 86. And then there are three active pitchers who can be reasonably expected to clear that bar this season — Johnny Cueto, Trevor Cahill and Rick Porcello. That brings us to 89. Still, that’s 18 pitchers (I know, I’m awesome at math) that didn’t clear that bar, or won’t this year. And to be frank, no one is closing the door on Hanson being one of them. The chart is simply to illustrate that Hanson isn’t exactly special in seeing his career arc plummet back to earth so quickly. Even after parsing the data much more than I would normally, you’re still left with more than a dozen guys in the same boat as him. If you want to talk tragic, let’s talk about Juan Nieves, who tossed a no-hitter at age-22 and then was out of the game two years later following shoulder troubles of his own. Whether Hanson’s troubles are less severe, or today’s medical technology has advanced far enough to give him additional opportunities, Hanson is still standing, and that’s pretty good.
Still, his chances of succeeding in the Rangers rotation are not what you would call promising. Whether he’s slotted in to be the team’s fifth, sixth or seventh starting pitcher, he faces an uphill climb on the road back to respectability. As we’ve discussed, the first and most important consideration is whether or not he can take the ball every fifth day. After tossing 202.2 innings in 2010, he has made just 66 starts across the past three seasons, and totaled just 377.2 innings pitched. That’s roughly two-thirds the starts you would hope to see, and about half the innings pitched you would hope to see. And the lowest total for each came last season, when he missed time with a forearm strain, and then was later demoted to Triple-A.
When he was on the mound, things weren’t much prettier. His BB% rose up to a level that was well worse than league average in 2012, and it remained at that level in 2013. In 2012 though, had an above-average strikeout rate, which helped mitigate some of the problem. Last season though, that strikeout rate dipped four percent down to 17.1%. On top of that, he became a fly ball pitcher. Perhaps that was him trying to adjust to an environment where Mike Trout and Peter Bourjos had his back in the outfield, or perhaps that was because he generated far fewer swings, and swings and misses than he had in the past. Not exactly known for pounding the strike zone — his 49.3% Zone% ranked right in the middle, 107th out of 206 pitchers with at least 70 innings pitched last year — Hanson needs hitters to swing the bat, and they stopped doing that last season. Looking again at the 206-pitcher sample, we see that only eight pitchers generated a lower Swing% than did Hanson.
This isn’t to suggest that Hanson is finished. He still possesses a fantastic curveball. Even last season, his 1.82 wCU/C ranked 16th-best out of 206 — better than Adam Wainwright, Matt Harvey and James Shields, to name just a few. And again, he’s still going to be just 27, so there aren’t a ton of miles on his arm. This deal is a bet that the Rangers can turn him around, and in a vacuum, it’s not a bad bet, especially for the low-low price of $2 million or less.
I say in a vacuum, because it seems like the last thing the Rangers need is a pitcher with injury concerns. Derek Holland is going to be out for at least half the season, and Colby Lewis didn’t pitch at all in the majors last season. Matt Harrison missed just about all of 2013 with back problems, and while he is supposed to be healthy, once you begin having back problems you never really are pain-free, no matter what your job is. And Alexi Ogando twice battled shoulder problems of his own last season. That leaves the Rangers with just Yu Darvish and Martin Perez around as guys you would consider totally healthy, and even Perez missed time last year with a left forearm fracture (though that hopefully shouldn’t linger). So, it would seem like perhaps the Rangers would have been better off signing a player that they could count on to deliver innings. And perhaps they still will. But Hanson certainly seems like an odd fit, unless the Rangers have figured out something about his health that we don’t know (and I’m not ruling that out).
Tommy Hanson was once a very promising pitcher, but his career has been derailed by injuries, much like several of the other members of his new team. If the Rangers can help either fix him or help him adjust to life with diminished velocity, they could end up with one of the steals of the winter. It’s more likely however, that this adventure won’t have a happy ending, and Hanson will be in much greater danger of falling under that 1,000 career innings pitched threshold. Pitchers need to either get strikeouts or ground balls to perform well in good hitting environments like Arlington, and Hanson hasn’t been getting much of either as of late.
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