Joel Hanrahan: Hit It If You Can

The Pittsburgh Pirates had a rather nice problem on their hands headed into Spring training as both Joel Hanrahan and Evan Meek had spectacular 2010 campaigns and both arguably deserved the right to close out games. This battle presented fantasy managers with the proverbial high risk/low cost option for late-round-save-sniping and in many leagues, both players were drafted as the situation played out. Although Hanrahan was a disaster in Spring with an ERA near seven and giving up several gopher balls, he no doubt bought Meek a steak dinner when Clint Hurdle handed him closer duties. What has happened since has been a pretty fantastic season for Joel Hanrahan.

Hanrahan currently has 32 saves, good for 7th overall in the National League. His ERA sits at 1.76 and his WHIP at 1.01. I’m not sure there were too many prognosticators that saw those kind of figures coming this season, but it could be in part because Hanrahan’s success this year may be attributed to a departure from what we knew about Hanrahan in the past. Whether or not it’s sustainable is a good question, so let’s investigate.

Strikeout mavens surely saw gold in Hanrahan’s double-digit K/9 rates over the last two seasons and if someone told me that going into 2011 his fastball was going to be a full MPH faster this season, I’d have probably thought he would be a lock at 12 K/9. And indeed, his fastball is up this season – way up:

Not only has his fastball velocity up significantly over the last two seasons, but his use of the fastball is up tremendously this season. Hanrahan has typically been a 66% fastball/33% slider kind of pitcher, mixing in a very rare change-up on occasion. That’s pretty consistent over his entire career — until this year, that is:

So we have a faster fastball, which would lend itself to more K’s, and we have him using the faster fastball almost 20% more of the time. And yet, his K/9 rate over the last three seasons has gone from 10 to nearly 13 down to 7.5 K/9 in 2011. What gives?

For starters, his slider is best pitch. In fact, in terms of pitch value per 100, his slider was among the most valuable in baseball last season, up with that of Daniel Bard and Jonny Venters. In 2010, he threw his slider 36.5% of the time and it produced a whiff rate over 27%. His fastball in the same season produced a whiff rate of less than 6%. Although his slider is still producing swings and misses, with his whiff rate on sliders at nearly 30% (wow) in 2011, he’s only throwing the pitch a little over 16% of the time, which has had a pretty deleterious effect on the K/9 rate.

In 2010, Hanrahan used to throw the slider more than half the time in any count in which he was ahead (0-1, 1-1, 0-2, 1-2, 2-2). In two strike counts, he threw it almost two-thirds of the time. The chart below illustrates just how much he’s abandoned his slider:

The biggest winners in that change have been right handed batters who have seen their K/9 rate drop from 12.69 in 2010 down to 6.54 in 2011.

In 2011, if you’re an opposing hitter, you can sit dead red on 2-0, 3-0, 2-1, or 3-1 counts as Hanrahan has thrown the fastball fully 100% of the time in those counts, and yet his fastball has been good enough to get away with it. How? A precipitous drop in his walk rate has certainly helped, keeping damage under control when he does get touched up. His BB/9 has gone from pretty terrible to being one of the stingiest closers in the league on free passes, seeing it fall from nearly 5 BB/9 in 2009 to 1.92 BB/9 in 2011. In fact, in 2011, his walks to left handed batters has gone from 5.83 to 5.76 down to 2.19 in 2011, which may explain the change in repertoire if he was having trouble keeping the slider in the zone vs. LHB. Additionally, and related to his repertoire, he has also reinvented himself into a ground ball pitcher:

On the season, Hanrahan has a BABIP that is a little low at .273 (xBABIP is .333 in large part due to that ground ball rate), a strand rate that’s a little high at 79% and a HR/FB rate that’s simply not sustainable at 2.2% (he has given up just one HR, and although it was to Jay Bruce, it was a bit of a cheapie at 351 feet). For these reasons, xFIP pegs him at just shy of 3.00. Looking ahead to next season, Hanrahan will surely command a higher price on draft day, but I’m not so sure he’s going to replicate the success he has seen this season. Hitters will likely adjust to his change in repertoire and without the same degree of luck on batted balls and fly balls, he’ll see some good old fashioned regression. We may in fact be seeing an adjustment by hitters already as his second half splits have him with a 2.81 ERA, 1.25 WHIP, with batters hitting .254 (versus .201 in the first half) and his xFIP in August is up over 3.60. Those aren’t horrible numbers, but they may be more representative of what we can expect going forward.

Hanrahan has been good, even great, in 2011. Whether he abandoned his slider because he wants to avoid injury or because he couldn’t control it, unless he starts throwing it more, his strikeouts will be pretty average for a closer. Should hitters adjust and he experience any degree of regression, he could struggle to save 30 again and his associated stats may look rather pedestrian among closers. You have to admire Hanrahan for taking the proverbial “here’s my best fastball, see if you can hit it” approach, and he’s a fun pitcher to watch because of it. But it might not kill him to sling that slider up there a little more.

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Michael was born in Massachusetts and grew up in the Seattle area but had nothing to do with the Heathcliff Slocumb trade although Boston fans are welcome to thank him. You can find him on twitter at @michaelcbarr.

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If you dig deeper, I think you will also find that his improved control and hitters’ fear of that slider has hurt his strikeout numbers. In the past, Hitters would wait out Hanrahan for a fastball count, now they are swinging at the first close fastball they see. Fortunately for the Pirates, they are rarely making solid contact.