The Enigma That Is Tommy Hanson

tommy-hansonThe Braves headed into 2012 saying that their pitching staff would be back at full strength and along with a healthy lineup need only a couple of minor tweaks too overcome last year’s collapse. For this to b e true the following had to happen:

  • Tommy Hanson would fully recover from his shoulder injury, question2
  • Jair Jurrjens would have sound knees again and pitch pike he did before the all start break in 2011,   redx
  • Mike Minor would prove he was good enough to have a rotation spot, greencheck
  • Brandon Beachy would do what he did in 2011    greencheck
  • Tim Hudson’s recovery from back surgery would did go as planned greencheck  and
  • Spring Training would decide the fifth starter though a shootout between top prospects Randall Delgado and Julio Teheran. redx

Well 3 1/2 out of 5 isn’t bad – we just saw bad in Colorado – but when the two pitchers expected  (by some) to take over as leaders of the rotation are consistently out preformed by a rookie and a 2nd year man, the long term success of the rotation is in question.

Currently Minor and Beachy are our best starters even after Minor’s rough handling at Coors Field. Who’s on top is a matter of debate, Statistically Minor leads in more sabermetric areas than Beachy while Beachy’s ERA related numbers are better. Whatever answer you prefer, having Jair Jurrjens sent to Gwinnett to get back on track and watching Hanson scratch and claw his way through five or six innings every game is not what most fans expected. Jurrjens is . . . confusing and needs his own post.   So for now anyway I’m skipping him and going to the man we were told over and over would be our Ace for the next few years; Tommy Hanson.

Hanson in 2012

Tommy Hanson’s shoulder surgery went well but even though Big Red says he’s at full strength, his performance certainly looks like there’s something wrong. His fastball rarely tops 90 these days (depending on the stadium gun) and it isn’t moving in the zone the way it once did. We knew this in the spring and Hanson was so frustrated with it then that he resurrected his sinker, a pitch he mostly abandoned as ineffective two years ago.  Whether he’s throwing it or not is a matter for discussion amongst the statistics folks. Here’s what I know:

  • Fangraphs shows him at 0% two seamers BUT has 14% unidentified
  • Brooks Baseball says he’s thrown 11% ,
  • Texas Leaguers agrees with Fangraphs but uses MLB’s identification of pitch type so they show a few in the numbers even though the percentage is zero

I meantion that because if you go to your favorite site and the numbers don’t match mine, well. . . I’m not surprised.

The major sites disagree on pitch speed as well, with Brooks Baseball showing Tommy’s speed a bit higher. All however show a similar drop in speed of 2.5 to 3mph. I’m using Fangraphs / Texas Leaguers speeds as they more closely resemble what you see on TV.

When Hanson takes the mound, fans remember his strike out numbers from last year and are accustomed to seeing him reach back and blow the ball by hitters when he needed a strike out. That hasn’t happened this year so many are worried about his loss of velocity. Some say his control is not what it was last year. Others say he’s throwing too many breaking balls and not using his fastball enough. So let’s take a look, first at pitch selection.

Eeeny, Meeny Miney . . .

What fans see and what they think they saw are it turns out, two different things.  Hanson is in fact throwing a slightly higher percentage of fastballs than in the previous two years,  while his slider and curve rates are for all purposes static.

According to Fangraphs Pitch F/x statistics Tommy’s pitch usage looks like this.

image

The graph show that he’s virtually abandoned his straight change and is using his curve as his off speed pitch. Since the curve and slider percentages are almost the same, it appears he’s replaced it with fastballs; probably the two seamer everyone seems to say he isn’t using but some charts show anyway.   Having busted everyone’s bubble on those points there let’s move on to one where they were right; pitch speed.

Vroommm Vroomm. . . .put put put put

No matter who’s numbers you use, Tommy’s velocity is down. This isn’t new for 2012, his fastball velocity began dropping in 2011, but it is even down from last year’s low. Slight variations in speed due to weather and how deep we are into the season are to be expected of course. Part of the reduced averaged speed is undoubtedly due to his sinker being misidentified as a four seamer but, the number or sinkers is small and in spite of a couple of pitches showing up at 92 Monday night, he’s topping out at 91 or so most games.  Since his fastball hasn’t been all that fast and appears very hittable, why would he use it more and his change up less? Fangraphs data shows an interesting coincidental trend.

image

While Tommy’s fastball has slowed down,  the few change ups he has throw have sped up. Pitchers and pitching coaches will tell you that there should be a 10mph difference between the fastball and the change for the change to be effective. Tommy’s gap was 10 in the past but now it’s less; usually closer to 5mph. When that happens the changeup becomes batting practice.

I have no idea why this has happened and I know the sample size is small but he’s staying away from it for a reason and the lack of a significant speed differential is likely that reason.

Hanson’s curve is still a very good one and he gets lots of buckled knees using it. When you throw more breaking balls, more breaking balls will hang. When more breaking balls hang hitters add money to their next contract by hitting them a long way. When hitters drive you pitches a long way, you get an early shower and the bullpen gets a lot of work. In order to postpone his shower, Tommy uses his fastball more often. Because a change and a fastball look almost alike and a curve looks a lot different, it looks like he’s using the curve more.

In The Zone

Fans are not accurate when they say Big Red’s control isn’t what it was last year. Contrary to popular belief, Hanson is throwing just as many strikes as before.

image

While his K- rate is down from last year’s, it’s really back to his norm. So while He’s throwing as many strikes as before his walk rate has gone up and so has his WHIP. Aside from the walks,;Why?

I see two things directly driving these numbers:

  1. Hitters are being more patient
  2. His BAbip is 30 points higher than it has ever been

The hitters’ patience – reflected in that increased walk rate – comes in spite of him throwing the same number of strikes as before. This tells me hitters are recognizing the pitches earlier and laying off those they used to swing at and get a bad result.

Here’s a little table comparing Tommy’s performance since 2009.

Tommy Hanson’s Sabermetric Numbers 2009-2010
Year 2012 2011 2010

Part of 2010

2009
K/9 7.71 9.83 7.68 8.74 8.18
BB/9 3.63 3.18 2.49 2.69 3.24
K/BB 2.13 3.09 3.09 3.25 2.52
HR/9 0.91 1.18 0.62 0.54 0.7
K% 20.0% 26.3% 20.5% 22.61% 22.2%
BB% 9.4% 8.5% 6.6% 6.96% 8.8%
AVG .257 .216 .235 .247 .223
WHIP 1.390 1.170 1.170 1.284 1.180
BABIP .307 .268 .286 .235 .275
LOB% 77.8% 76.2% 71.4% 64.0% 80.3%
ERA- 99 96 84 70
FIP- 108 97 84 84
xFIP- 109 85 97 94
ERA 3.63 3.60 3.33 2.89
FIP 3.91 3.67 3.31 3.50
E-F -0.28 -0.07 0.02 -0.61
xFIP 4.01 3.29 3.87 3.97
tERA 3.93 4.00 3.21 3.48
SIERA 3.98 3.23 3.74 3.89

The Yellow highlights are numbers outside of his norm. Those in red are negative trends farther away from the norm than I would expect without a reason. The blue column contains numbers for the first 132 innings of 2010.

Tommy pitched more than 130 innings for the first and only time in 2010. In order to see if he was a lot better in the first half  I ran some the numbers for a partial season of 132 innings. You can see that they approximate those for the same number of innings in the other three years. (Definitions and explanations for the abbreviations  can be found  at Fangraphs.)

If Hanson is as on target as in the past, why are the hitters being so patient and why suddenly are those bloop hits and seeing eye grounders that raise his BAbip happening?

Three things directly effect BABip, defense, talent/performance level and luck.  Our defense is sound, I checked all of Tommy’s games and he hasn’t been blighted with horrendous errors. Luck we can’t do much about but it seems unreasonable to believe that he would be so unlucky every game. That leaves performance. Certainly his talent didn’t vanish and while lower velocity may explain part of it, some really good pitchers – Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux and Johan Santana  to name three, pitched very well working at and around 89MPH. The big difference for me is reduction in pitch movement.

If It Doesn’t Move (enough) Punish It

You hear commentators and players talking all the time about pitch movement and how late movement – a lot of late movement – makes a pitch hard to hit. When I pitch straightens out hitters punish it.  Tommy’s movement on his  heater has changed significantly since 2009. Before I go any farther let me say this, it is really hard to be certain that reduced or increased movement is the reason a pitcher’s fortunes change. First of all, the way movement is measured is evolving; the numbers from one year don’t necessarily relate directly to another. Secondly weather conditions can affect pitch movement. Cold weather reduces it and rain can be really hard on it,  Having said all that, I’ve looked at all the other factors and come to the conclusion that reduced movement is in this case a big reason for Tommy’s struggles.

In a post on Tuesday, Carlos showed a couple of heat charts for Beachy.  Similar charts exist for pitch movement. To really see if pitch  movement has changed you need to overlay them one on top of the other. I did that with Hanson’s charts for the last four years and there is a significant change. I’ve modified these charts with an ellipse showing the densest areas of the fastball cluster for reach year  When you read the chart remember that a + movement is away from right-handed batters while a – move is towards right-handed batters.

hmov3

The 2009 cluster is larger with more area to the left or towards a right handed hitter and away from a lefty, The 2010 is flatter but still lots of movement towards a righty. The ellipses for 2011 and 2012 show significant lack of that movement. Those of use who prefer a more traditional graph might like this one better.

movechart

Tommy’s vertical movement hasn’t changed a much but in 2011 his horizontal movement dropped 3.25” on average. Three inches may not seem like much but when you’re throwing a 2.9 inch diameter baseball at a 17 inch wide target 60’6” away it can be huge.

While most of Tommy’s pitches stayed about the same you can see the drop in fastball movement that occurred in 2011 coinsiding with a drop in average velocity to 91mph. It appears that as Tommy’s torn rotator cuff made it’s presence felt velocity and movement on the fastball were directly affected.  What that means to a hitter is not only a split second more to react but also a chance to get more of the bat on the ball.

fastball movement

In other words, a fastball that moved off the plate to a left handed hitter in 2009 and 2010 now stays over the plate, in the zone and hittable longer. The drawing of the plate is to scale illustrates the impact of the reduction of movement in the zone.

The articles explaining Pitch F/X suggest that we not get too wrapped up in numbers alone. Instead we should ask ourselves, regardless of the theoretical changes the numbers show, “What have the pitcher’s results been since those changes took place?” In Hanson’s case we’ve seen a pitcher who used to dominate even the best lineup struggle through six innings against average hitters . Even though his control remains sharp more runners are reaching base each inning making each pitch more stressful than it might have been two years ago. We know that he’s throwing strikes and while 90 isn’t going to blow a major league hitter away, it can be fast enough to be successful. Since his level of success has gone down, the only thing I see left is movement.

 

That’s A Wrap

There’s no question that Tommy Hanson lost movement and velocity on his fastball and yet he manages to fight his way through games without giving up a ton of runs.

  • Are the changes even a permanent thing or will his speed and movement return with added shoulder strength?  If they never return to previous levels,
  • Will he be able to adapt to these changes in his pitches, learn to locate them such that the reduced movement still takes the ball out of the heart of the hitting zone? Most pitchers face this type of change later in their career, some are successful some are not. He’s had that movement most of his pitching life and changing won’t be easy.
  • Even if he adapts, can be that top of the rotation guy he was once projected to be?

Tommy appears to me to be struggling to understand why he feels great but the ball just doesn’t do what it once did for him. Improvement may come when he stops struggling with accepting it and learns to work with what he has left. He might in the end, be a better pitcher for his struggles.

Topics: Brandon Beachy, Johan Santana, Mike Minor, Tom Glavine. Greg Maddux, Tommy Hanson

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  • http://www.sabbump.org/ clearwall

    That’s a lot of stuff(good stuff) to digest. I really want to see him throw more curves. Like you say, he can really be devastating with that and with the drop in velocity that it has could be more effective than the straight-up change. Offense needs to rally a bit more for him and get more than 1-2 runs a night to work with. The old adage is true, though, if you’re going to be the ace, you’re going up against the opponent’s ace too so your team prob wont get as many runs for you. Still, the great hitting team we have should be able to get more than 2 runs a night on anyone.
     
    I have confidence in Tommy. He’ll get right soon enough and he’ll learn to use whatever it is he has in his arm. Remember, he’s pitched in some really hitter-friendly parks so far this year(Hou, Ari, Chc) so that might be affecting him a bit. Get back to the Ted, get some confidence working and he’ll be right soon enough. Im more worried about O’Ventbrel. What the hell is wrong with THAT??

  • http://tomahawktake.com/ CarlosCollazo

     @clearwall The O is what’s wrong with that.

  • FredOwens

     @clearwall Glad you enjoyed it in spite of my midnight typos’ which I will fix :-) IMHO what’s wrong with the three musketeers is exactly the opposite of what was wrong with them last year, they aren’t getting enough work. Fredi took so much heat and I suspect pressure from above to back off the young arms that EOF and JV  for example may not t work for 5 days. Watching him last year EOF has to work at least every third day of he loses sharpness; same with JV. He was held back with a sore shoulder the last weekend and performed okay last night but I bet if asked he’d prefer every third day as well. Kimbrel – like most young flame throwers -has always been wild. I really prefer Ross behind the plate for him as I don’t see Mac calming him down as much as Ross but that won’t happen. We need to accept that he’s going to be wild but that’s useful wildness in that it keeps the batter loose in the box and his heat makes them swing early and look bad..
    I’m tired of Durbin being used as anything but the last pitcher out of the pen. I’d like to see Gearry but I suspect they are waiting to see if Pete gets back in shape before they do anything. I have no confidence that JJ’s good outing at Gwinnett means anything but if he has another he will be back creating an interesting problem for Wren and Company.

  • Big Bad Bob

     @FredOwens Like you, I would rather see Gearrin than Dustbin in the games. Unfortunately, it seems that Fredi doesn’t want him on the team.
    While Fredi and co. may want to see what Pete  (Moyo) has left after 2 years of injuries, I would be satisfied with Chapman or Flande from AAA. Moyo needed to be cut 2 years ago, at least.
    As far as JJ is concerned, I have a feeling that there may be something between him and  Fredi  that has ticked off the Frediot. Perhaps FG thought he came into spring in bad condition and wants JJ to get into better shape at Gwinnett. Whatever the case may be, Fredi has been saying some strange things about JJ (Good outings not enough to warrant return; needs to work on arm and leg strengthm as well as pitching well, etc.). I suppose only time will tell.