NEW YORK – Tommy Hanson started a postseason game in 2010, so he didn’t bite when someone asked if pitching opening day Thursday against the New York Mets would be comparable to a playoff start. “I don’t think so, to be honest with you,” he said.
He’s also been a top-rated prospect, an up-and-comer who once dominated the Arizona Fall League, a kid who was the talk of baseball at the outset of his rookie season in 2009, and a pitcher who was so good in last season’s first half (10-4, 2.44 ERA) that folks around baseball agreed he deserved to be on the All-Star team, though he wasn’t selected.
In other words, Hanson didn’t just fall off one of the orange trucks from his hometown of Redlands, Calif. He’s been around, seen plenty in his young career, done some things. Pitching opening day at Citi Field against the Mets and Johan Santana isn’t going to overwhelm him or leave him searching for words to describe the significance of the honor.
Especially not now, after the late season of his discontent in 2011 due to a shoulder injury, followed by an offseason of change – in his funky pitching mechanics to reduce the arm stress – and a spring training that began in tumult when he wrecked his car en route to the first workout. He had a Grade 1 concussion that kept him out more than a week.
“After what I went through last year, and even getting the concussion, I’m just glad I can go out and pitch,” Hanson said. “I’m glad I’m getting the first start and I’m healthy. Right now life is good. I want to go out and do well and try to help us win.”
With Tim Hudson rehabbing from back surgery, Hanson gets the opening-day nod over Jair Jurrjens, who struggled in his first four spring starts before finishing with two strong outings, albeit against lackluster Houston split-squad lineups. Jurrjens starts the second game of the season Saturday and left-hander Mike Minor gets the Mets series finale Sunday.
Hanson, 25, will be the youngest Braves pitcher to start opening day since John Smoltz (23) in 1991.
“Tommy deserves it,” third baseman Chipper Jones said. “We all know Huddy would be the No. 1 if he was healthy, but somebody’s got to go out there and Tommy’s doing well this spring. It’s on him to be the horse until Huddy gets back. Sometimes being thrust into that No. 1 starter role makes a guy turn a corner, and we hope that Tommy is ready to make that next jump towards stardom.”
Braves backup catcher David Ross thinks Hanson could be poised for a step forward for another reason: a two-seam fastball, or sinker, that Hanson unveiled last weekend during his final spring start. Until then his repertoire consisted of four-seam (straight) fastballs, sliders and curveballs with some change-ups sprinkled in.
The sinker could be a game-changer, Ross said.
“He threw a sinker and he threw it really well [Saturday against Detroit],” Ross said. “It’s easier to call a game when you can challenge guys with a fastball with some movement. Guys have to be really fine [with location] with straight, four-seam heaters. If you’re like Huddy [a sinkerballer], you can get a guy in a hitter’s count and throw a two-seamer that’s moving and get a groundball.
“It makes [Hanson] a better pitcher. It makes you be more aggressive because you’re throwing more fastballs and makes the hitter commit more to the heater than just sit on off-speed where he can foul off a straight fastball, that kind of stuff.”
Hanson allowed two runs and five hits in six innings against the Tigers, who had pummeled Braves pitching for 30 runs in the three most-recent spring games between them.
“I mean, finding out that he’ll throw that and has confidence in it, against that [Detroit] lineup,” Ross said. “That’s a good lineup over there. They beat our [rears] every time we threw out a pitcher [previously this spring], so it was nice to have a ball with some movement and see those guys swing over pitches and be in hitter’s counts and miss them, and see the best hitter in the game [Miguel Cabrera] grounding out and getting jammed. That put a smile on my face the way he threw.”
Hanson changed his pitching mechanics this winter to relieve stress on the shoulder and back, after he was diagnosed with a small subsurface tear of his rotator cuff and missed the last seven weeks of the season. He’s not throwing across his body as much now, and the pause he had as his arm came forward has been reduced and relocated, allowing him to use his long legs a little more and not rely on the “all arm” flinging sort of motion he had before.
The change also cut down on his delivery time to the plate while working out of the stretch with runners on. No other pitcher gave up as many stolen bases the past two seasons as Hanson, whose hitch-and-pause motion were a virtual green light for even a mediocre base runner to take off.
Now, to the offseason mechanical change comes an addition – the sinker – that might have an even more immediate and noticeable impact.
“The pitch is the sinker,” Ross said. “His stuff isn’t any better [than before], but all of a sudden he’s putting movement on his fastball, so that makes everything better,” he said. “Everybody talks about, ‘Oh, it’s the cutter [in vogue] now,’ or this and that pitch. But it doesn’t matter how hard you throw, if you throw a four-seam fastball it’s going to get hit. If you throw an 86-mph good sinker, you’re going to compete. It’s hard to hit that, especially early on in spring. We’re trying to figure out how to hit the straight hitter, much less one with some movement.”
Against the Mets, Hanson was 3-2 with a 2.27 ERA in six career starts before giving up eight hits, seven runs and career-high four homers in 3-1/3 innings on Aug. 6 at Citi Field. He didn’t pitch again last season, now returns to Citi Field for opening day.
The Braves will start Brandon Beachy on Monday at Houston, then Hanson comes back on regular rest Tuesday before No. 5 starter Randall Delgado makes his season debut in Wednesday’s series finale against the Astros, the sixth game of the season. Jurrjens will start the home opener April 13 against Milwaukee, barring rainouts or other unexpected developments.
“It doesn’t really matter — you could have gone JJ first and Tommy second and then Tommy gets the home opener,” said manager Fredi Gonzalez, adding that the Braves were leaning toward Hanson as the opening day starter before his concussion, then had to wait to be sure he would have enough time to get ready after his delayed spring debut.
Hanson did, and for that he credited the offseason work, the reason he’d already thrown six or seven bullpen sessions before spring training began. That’s more mound work than he’d have done in a typical winter, and that base he’d built up allowed him to get through the period of concussion-necessitated inactivity without falling behind.
“I feel like I’m working and everything’s going good,” Hanson said. “That’s the biggest thing for me is I wanted to come to spring training and feel good and not have any setbacks. Then you have the concussion thing – that sucks – but you’ve just got to battle and keep working, and that’s what I did. So I feel like I’m where I need to be now and it’s almost like that stuff didn’t happen.”
“I don’t feel anything in my shoulder. My back’s not bothering me. Obviously my head is fine. So you’ve got to just keep pushing forward.”