Hello again everyone from what has suddenly become the Michigan summer of yore; beautiful skies, high 70’s, not too much humidity. This is the payoff from the snow shoveling!
Speaking of clear skies, is that the forecast for Tommy Hanson and the Braves? While the team has been playing better of late, it seems the Phillies have forgotten how to lose a game. It’s possible the Braves could have the second or third best record in baseball at the end of the season and still finish in double-digits behind Philadelphia. All of that means nothing in the playoffs, especially with the current crap-shoot oriented structure. So, to me, the issue for the Braves is how to make sure that Hanson is healthy enough to pitch in the playoffs, while making sure that the team wins enough games to get there. Remember, there’s no bonus for finishing 5 games behind instead of 10, so long as you make the playoffs.
A good place to start would be to assess the current state of Hanson’s shoulder. According to the MRI’s done this week, there still appears to be no structural damage to the joint. That in itself is great news, obviously. While medical science has made the once career-ending elbow ligament damage nothing more than a speed-bump in a pitcher’s career, it is still figuring out how to fix shoulders. Structural damage to a shoulder is still a quick way to derail a career. Mark Pryor is a poster boy for what shoulder damage can do, as he’s still trying to get back to the majors. However, even if there’s no structural damage to the shoulder, this is the second time this season that the shoulder has been bothering him. Further, his velocity on his fastball has been down all season, rarely touching the 94 MPH that he used to sit on regularly. According to Fangraphs, Hanson’s average fastball velocity has declined from 92.7 in 2010 to 91.2 this year. And his fastball has been much less effective than it was last year, as indicated by Fangraphs “wFB – Fastball runs above average” statistic, which says that Hanson “created” 15.8 runs in 2010 while “creating” a negative 6.3 (yep, that’s -6.3) runs this year. Whether you believe in the absolute value of some of these advanced statistics or not, the relative change year over year is dramatic, especially when you consider that he has thrown the pitch roughly the same percentage of the time each year (57% in 2010 versus 53.6% in 2011). Hanson’s strikeout rate is actually up this year to 9.8 K/9 from a career rate of just over 8, while his walk rate is up as well (3.2 in 2011 versus 2.5 in 2010). From looking deeper into the numbers, it looks like the K’s are actually from his slider and curve-ball effectiveness improvement. Finally, the percentage of his fly balls that are hit for homers has doubled in 2011, from a career rate of about 6% entering 2011 to 12.5% this year. You can look at his stats in depth here at Fangraphs.
All-in-all, this looks like a pitcher whose fastball isn’t what it once was. It doesn’t have the velocity it once did, and once it’s hit, it’s hit harder and further. And fastball effectiveness has always been a hallmark of healthiness. If I were the Braves, I would be very concerned with Hanson, more so because of these numbers than because he’s been in a bad streak, as he’s always struggled with consistency. If that’s the case, then what do you do?
If there is no shoulder damage (and honestly, I’m not sure that’s a fact; I’d almost bet there’s something in there that needs fixing, even if it’s a minor cleanup, but that’s pure speculation), then the only known cure for inflammation is drugs and rest. The Braves have said that they expect Hanson to make his next start Tuesday against the Giants. He would be rested to a certain degree, making the start on nine days’ interval. Is that enough? I guess time will tell. Against a lesser opponent, I’d guess the Braves would start Julio Teheran, who is dominating AAA with a 12-2 record, 2.16 ERA,and a WHIP of 1.12. He’s still refining his craft, with the only glaring need statistically being to work on his heavy fly ball tendency.
Long term, I think the Braves would be wise to look at a 5 and a half man rotation. By this I mean to lay out the remaining schedule and determine competitive match-ups where Julio Tehran can make “strategic” starts (or Mike Minor can do so, after Jair Jurrjens returns from the DL). This not only reduces the workload on both JJ and Hanson, it allows Minor and/or Teheran to accumulate experience that could be critical if something happens to either JJ or Hanson. Based on what we know now, it would seem a good bet that something will happen to one or the other. Done strategically, it will allow the team to maximize its win probability in the games chosen for these “strategic starts”.
Realistically, it’s the Braves versus the second place team in the NL West for the wild card. The Braves should manage the team and the expanded starting rotation with that point of view. The team has a 5.0 game lead in the wildcard race. All it needs is a one game lead to make the playoffs. Losing a game or two of that lead while preserving the health of the starters and gaining experience for the talented sixth and seventh starters the team has and may well need in the playoffs is the right thing to do. At least that’s my take. What’s yours?