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Don’t Panic over Tommy Hanson

Atlanta Braves right-hander Tommy Hanson came into the 2010 season as a prized fantasy pick. Standing 6-6 and weighing 220 pounds, Hanson used low-90’s heat and a pair of plus breaking pitches to torture minor league hitters. The 22nd-round draft-and-follow selection from the 2005 draft punched out 10.7 batters per nine innings as a prospect, walking 3.1 per nine and compiling a 3.26 FIP. He then impressed as a rookie last season, posting a 2.89 ERA in 127.2 frames following an early June call-up. Hanson, according to KFFL, had a pre-season ADP of 64.

It seems disappointing, then, that the 23-year-old currently sports a 4.50 ERA in 90 innings pitched. Following two especially rough starts against the White Sox and the Tigers, a small number of angst-ridden owners have actually severed ties altogether — Hanson’s Yahoo ownership rate is 94 percent. What’s ailing Atlanta’s would-be ace? Nothing, really. He’s the same extremely talented, if rough-around-the-edges starter that garnered praise last season.

In 2009, Hanson had 8.18 K/9, 3.24 BB/9 and a 40.2% ground ball rate. This season, he’s getting more K’s (exactly one whiff per inning), walking 3.1 per nine innings and has a 37.8% rate of grounders. Hanson got swinging strikes 9.6% as a rookie (8.6% MLB average), and 9.5% during his sophomore season (8.3% MLB average). His contact rate is a bit higher — 77.2% in ’09 compared to 78.9% this season (80-81% MLB average), and he’s getting fewer first-pitch strikes (63.4% last year and 61.2% in 2010), though that’s still well above the 58-59% MLB average. Hanson’s xFIP is 4.11 this year, after he posted a 4.03 xFIP in 2009.

The main reasons for the wide disparity in Hanson’s ERA over the 2009 and 2010 seasons are his BABIP and strand rate. Last season, Hanson had a .280 BABIP. That’s not ridiculously low, given that he’s a pitcher who gives up a high proportion of fly balls. Fly balls, while far more harmful overall than grounders, have a lower BABIP than worm burners. In 2010, Hanson has been victimized by a .347 BABIP. That’s going to come down significantly — Hanson’s rest-of-season ZiPS projects a .292 BABIP.

His rate of leaving runners on base was very high last year (80.3%) and has declined to 69.8%. With runners on base in 2009, Hanson had 6.75 K/9, 4.22 BB/9 and a 4.81 xFIP, but he managed to avoid trouble due to a .230 BABIP. This year, he’s got 7.32 K/9, 3.66 BB/9 and a 4.63 xFIP, but his BABIP with men on has spiked to .342. Odds are, Hanson’s LOB rate remains closer to his current mark than that lofty ’09 figure, perhaps climbing to the low-seventies.

In both 2009 and 2010, Hanson has posted home run per fly ball rates well below the 11% MLB average — 6.9% last season, and 6.4% in his second go-around the majors. Turner Field did suppress home runs per fly ball hit by five percent over the 2006-2009 seasons, so it’s reasonable to expect his HR/FB rate to be slightly under the big league average. But he’s likely going to serve up more homers during the second half.

For the rest of 2010, I’d expect Hanson’s BABIP to greatly decline, his HR/FB to rise and his rate of stranding runners to remain close to where it currently is. He doesn’t have the skill-set of a sub-three’s ERA pitcher (who does?), but he’s also better than that 4.50 ERA indicates. At 23, with basically a season’s worth of innings under his oft-adjusted belt, Hanson’s pitching like a high-three’s-to-low-four’s ERA starter. That’s impressive, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see him improve upon that level of performance as he gains more experience.