LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — The night before he was scheduled to pitch against the Boston Red Sox last season, Tommy Hanson had a 104-degree fever and was feeling the cold tiles of the bathroom floor. In the words of Braves pitching coach Roger McDowell, “He looked like a stewed tomato.”
Hanson showed up at the stadium the next morning. He was still ill. He was dehydrated and somewhat wobbly. Then he threw six shutout innings and led the Braves past the Red Sox, 2-1.
“The great ones,” McDowell said, “are the ones who don’t miss starts. That’s the key to being a top-of-the-rotation guy. A lot of guys have talent. The great ones have a presence – a very self-assured presence. That combination is fairly rare.”
Funny thing about Tommy Hanson. Last spring, he was the flavor of the month. This spring, he often is spotted sitting alone in front of his locker, while most media members descend on the incoming Jason Heyward, or the outgoing Bobby Cox, or the somewhat-clinging-to-hope-for-redemption Chipper Jones.
Bottom line: spring training is about storylines, and Tommy Hanson isn’t one of them, which is kind of funny considering he may be a key to this season. The Braves aren’t likely to score a ton of runs this season. They’ll go as their starting pitching goes. If Hanson is remotely the guy he is projected to be in year two after a rookie season that saw him go 11-4 and a 2.89 ERA, the rotation will have few equals.
Yet he has somehow slipped out of the spotlight.
“It’s not the end of the world,” he said. “I think Heyward’s taking the pressure off everyone. It’s nice, actually.”
Last year, he was the young phenom. This year?
“Old news,” McDowell cracked.
“Have you guys even talked to him?” Bobby Cox asked.
No matter. Hanson and Jair Jurrjens are the John Smoltz and Tom Glavine of this generation’s pitching staff. They will be here for a while. (Cox named Derek Lowe his opening day starter Sunday; you would be safe to assume this is mostly about health and circumstances involving Jurrjens and Tim Hudson than the belief that Lowe is the ace of the rotation.)
We saw enough in year one to feel comfortable that there won’t be a nosedive in year two. We saw him “get crushed” – Hanson’s words – in his major league debut. He allowed seven runs (six earned) and three homers in six innings to Milwaukee.
“The biggest lesson I learned is those guys adjust the second time through the order,” Hanson said.
Talent gets you to the majors. Intelligence and work ethic take it from there.
Hanson won his next four starts, including the Yankees and Red Sox back to back. In a stretch of five starts, he allowed three earned runs in 30 innings. He had 116 strikeouts in 127 2/3 innings and posted the lowest ERA for a Braves’ rookie starter in 66 years. He did this without the benefit of a change-up that he had much confidence in (something he is making a priority this spring). His ability to quickly adjust to situations on the mound, which is uncommon for a young pitcher, impressed coaches and teammates.
“He’s a perfectionist – he gets it,” catcher Brian McCann said. “If he leaves some pitches out of the zone, he’s not happy about it. That’s the difference for me. You get some guys who are called up and they’re happy to be here. Then you get guys who want to produce and excel.”
Some fans complain that he should’ve been here the first two months of the season. Fact is, we can’t know for certain he would’ve performed as well if he had been.
Hanson: “I knew with them signing Glavine, it was pretty obvious I wasn’t going to make the team in training camp. But I wasn’t worried about it.”
He spent this offseason getting stronger. Workouts aimed at improving his shoulder and core have added five pounds of muscle. He’s up to 215 pounds, after dropping to as low as 205 in the summer. He’s working on his pitches, his approach, everything.
“I know I have to adjust some things if I’m going to get better,” he said.
If this keeps up, he’ll be big news again one day.
Earlier posts from Braves’ camp: