The 2009 Atlanta Braves boasted one of the best starting rotations in the majors. Collectively, Atlanta starters ranked second in the NL in FIP and xFIP, with the fourth-highest strikeout-to-walk ratio in the Senior Circuit. Javier Vazquez had a career year. Jair Jurrjens pitched well, if not as well as his microscopic ERA suggests. Kenshin Kawakami and Derek Lowe were serviceable, and Tim Hudson made a strong last-season return.
A rookie did his best to steal the show, however. Tommy Hanson has laid waste to pro hitters since the Braves inked the 6-6 righty as a 2005 draft-and-follow selection.
Following a stint at Riverside Community College, Hanson signed on the dotted line for a $325,000 bonus. He made his pro debut with Danville in Rookie Ball in 2006, where he posted rates of 9.8 K/9 and 1.6 BB/9 in 51.2 innings.
In 2007, Hanson dominated hitters with 10.4 punch outs per nine innings in 133 IP between the Low-A South Atlantic League and the High-A Carolina League (his FIP was 4.14). His control left something to be desired (3.9 BB/9) . But as a 20 year-old with wicked stuff, Hanson moved up prospect lists. Baseball America ranked the big righty as the 9th-best talent in Atlanta’s farm system, praising his “nasty overhand curveball with tight spin and 12-to-6-break.”
Hanson went from a sleeper prospect to a household name in 2008, wiping the floor with batters between the Carolina League and the AA Southern League. In 138 frames, Hanson whiffed a combined 10.6 batters, with 3.4 BB/9. His FIP dropped nearly a run, to 3.18. As if that weren’t enough, he then took no prisoners in the hitter-friendly Arizona Fall League (49 K in 29 innings, with a 0.63 ERA). Hanson topped Atlanta’s prospect list entering 2009, with BA noting that the Braves viewed him as a “future ace.”
Opening the ’09 season at AAA Gwinnett, Hanson outclassed International League batters. In 66.1 IP, he struck out 12.2 hitters per nine innings, with just 2.3 BB/9 (2.42 FIP). He forced his way to the majors, getting the call-up in early June.
Hanson made 21 starts for the Braves, compiling a 2.89 ERA in 127.2 innings. He whiffed 8.18 per nine frames, while issuing 3.24 free passes per nine innings. Hanson’s xFIP (4.03) was higher than his ERA, as his home run per fly ball rate (6.9 percent) was well below the typical 10-12% range for pitchers. A fly ball pitcher (40.2 GB% in the majors in ’09, career 39.1 GB% in the minors), Hanson will likely cough up a few more homers next season.
Even so, Atlanta’s prized prospect was extremely impressive. Few pitchers consistently got ahead in the count like Hanson: his 63.4 first-pitch strike percentage placed 10th among starters tossing 120+ innings (the MLB average is around 58 percent). Hanson’s 77.2 percent contact rate wasn’t elite (80.5% MLB average), but it was comfortably above average. His 9.9 swinging strike percentage was excellent, though, placing 24th among starting pitchers (7.8% average for starters).
Coming up through the minors, Hanson was best known for a plus curveball and slider. He wasn’t bashful about breaking out the breaking stuff in the majors. Hanson threw his 92 MPH fastball about 58% of the time, with positive results (+0.28 runs per 100 pitches).
His 83 MPH slider (thrown 24 percent) and 75 MPH curveball (14 percent), however, paralyzed opposing batters. That slider was worth +1.79 runs per 100 tosses, and his curve was even more deadly (+2.36). Hanson didn’t use his 83 MPH changeup much, throwing it just 4 percent with little success (-1.85).
Using data from Joe Lefkowitz’s Pitch F/X Tool, we can get a better read on how Hanson gets the job done:
(Quick note about the MLB averages: Lefkowitz’s tool uses Microsoft Excel, and currently it only downloads a maximum of 5,000 pitches. So, the MLB averages aren’t based on ALL pitches thrown by righties. But this gives us a decent sample size.)
He does a great job of pounding the strike zone with his heater. The rates on the curveball and slider are fantastic: Hanson’s whiff percentage with his breaking stuff is through the roof, and he can locate those pitches to boot. The changeup, obviously, remains a work in progress.
Tommy shut down right-handers in 2009 (56 sOPS+, meaning he was 44 percent better than average against righties). He didn’t exactly struggle with southpaws (92 sOPS+, eight percent better than average). We’re splitting hairs here, but Hanson did occasionally lose the zone against opposite-handed batters:
NL Avg. for RHP vs. RHB: 18.9
Hanson’s Walks/PA%: 5.3
NL Avg. for RHP vs. RHB: 7.4
Hanson’s Strikeout/PA%: 22.7
NL Avg. for RHP vs. LHB: 17.4
Hanson’s Walks/PA%: 11.9
NL Avg. for RHB vs. LHB: 10.5
(Data courtesy of Baseball-Reference)
Tommy Hanson just turned 23 in late August, yet he’s remarkably polished for his age. He’s not afraid to hammer the strike zone with his fastball, slider or curveball, and those breaking pitches generate a dizzying number of swings and misses. Few pitchers, regardless of age, possess Hanson’s combination of power and command. Don’t hesitate to drop a high draft pick on Hanson in 2010.
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