Tommy Hanson’s Rookie Year

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:

TommyHansonPitchFx

(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:

Vs. RHB
Hanson’s Strikeout/PA%:27.1
NL Avg. for RHP vs. RHB: 18.9
Hanson’s Walks/PA%: 5.3
NL Avg. for RHP vs. RHB: 7.4

Vs. LHB
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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A recent graduate of Duquesne University, David Golebiewski is a contributing writer for Fangraphs, The Pittsburgh Sports Report and Baseball Analytics. His work for Inside Edge Scouting Services has appeared on ESPN.com and Yahoo.com, and he was a fantasy baseball columnist for Rotoworld from 2009-2010. He recently contributed an article on Mike Stanton's slugging to The Hardball Times Annual 2012. Contact David at david.golebiewski@gmail.com and check out his work at Journalist For Hire.


12 Responses to “Tommy Hanson’s Rookie Year”

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  1. philosofool says:

    Nice stuff. This kid is going to be incredible if he stays healthy (always a concern with pitchers.)

    Unfortunately, I’m willing to bet that Hanson is overdrafted or drafted right at his likely value in most leagues. His ERA last season was so shiny, you can expect that about 25% of fantasy ball players just aren’t going to resist drafting him way ahead of Wandy Rodriguez or Ted Lilly. Do you really want to spend that pick on Hanson when you could wait three or four rounds for Nolasco, Wandy or Lilly? I’m nor denying your assessment of Hanson’s considerable skill, I’m just thinking he’s unlikely to be a value on draft day.

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    • R M says:

      He’s likely to be much better than Wandy or Lilly, so they would have good reason for not holding off on him. Nolasco I could see waiting for.

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      • philosofool says:

        Hanson is currently drafting above Josh Beckett. He is very unlikely to be worth the price you will pay.

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  2. jtshow says:

    how would you rank him against other young pitchers like cole hamels, and clayton kershaw?

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  3. kevin says:

    3rd. Kershaw could be dominant. Hamels will be fine. The WS hype and not being prepared for the season hurt him.

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  4. hamandcheese says:

    Keep in mind that Kershaw had a really low HR/FB%. Super low. I think it’s really a toss up between the three.

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  5. kevin says:

    Hanson went from 138 IP to 194 IP. That is a little scary.
    Kershaw has a great park to pitch in as well. That is a nice advantage.
    Don’t get me wrong, Hanson is good. But, I need to see it twice before I put him ahead of Kershaw and Hamels.

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  6. scott says:

    hamels really helped himself out last year, too, huh?

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  7. kevin says:

    If you look at Hamels from 08 to 09, not much difference in FIP or the peripherals. BABIP is what changed dramatically.
    I look at all four of his years. One not so stellar year doesn’t make me think it’s a trend.

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  8. Shilzzz says:

    kershaw, hanson, hamels.

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  9. hamandcheese says:

    Kevin, don’t forget that Hanson threw 28.2 innings in the Arizona Fall League. 138 innings in the minors + 28 = 166.2 innings. 166 to 194 isn’t too concerning.

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