Chipper gets a lot of attention because he may regain his 2008 form or he may not even play an inning this year. Dan Uggla is being counted on hitting his 30 homers to revitalize the power threat that Atlanta lacked in the past several years. Jason Heyward, of course, has a world of expectations that will continue for the foreseeable future. However, if you wan to know who's performance and health is most tied with success for the 2011 Atlanta Braves, look no further than Thomas Hanson.Like the Giants, the heart of the team is the pitching staff. This team will be able to overcome slumps at the plate by certain players, as hitters are expected to go into slumps. Lapses in offense can be filled easier than holes in a starting pitching staff. While it's true that someone like Brandon Beachy can get a call-up and be an adequate fill-in, it's unlikely he'll instantly be a frontline starter. The Braves offense has versatility. If Chipper needs some days off, Prado plays third. Hinske can play left field, first, or even third. Joe Mather is signed on as utility man extraordinaire. In addition to having the best catcher in the NL, Atlanta also has the best backup catcher in the NL. Tommy Hanson is already a frontline starter. He cannot be replaced yet by anyone in Atlanta's minor league roster. His MLB career numbers speak for themselves. WHIP 1.178 (!), HR/9 0.7, H/9 7.8, BB/9 2.8, SO/9 7.9, SO/BB 2.83 and a 3.16 ERA. Groundball machine Tim Hudson is an excellent pitcher. He was the ace of the staff nearly all year long and finishing 4th in the Cy Young race. However, I don't see him putting up a 2.83 ERA again. The .249 BABIP from 2010 (easily his career low) does not scream sustainability. As the best power pitcher on the staff, Hanson's numbers are sustainable and I think he's the actual ace of the 2011 staff.
Let's face it. The biggest issue here is Tommy not having Tommy John surgery a la Medlen or Strasburg. Of course, it doesn't have to be TJ, it could be 3 minor, non-related injuries that plague him all year like a certain other member of the 2010 starting pitching staff. Every pitcher is different, but the innings pitched over his past two professional seasons are, in my opinion, cause for concern. (Let me just say that I don't think Hanson will be diagnosed as a TJ case at some point in 2011. The coaches and staff on the Braves certainly know more than I do about keeping a young pitcher healthy while he tries to provide value to a team. I do think there is a certain amount of unpredictability in dealing with young pitchers asked to carry a large load which may or may not result in a significant injury for Tommy Hanson.) He's thrown a combined 400 2/3 IP in 2009 and 2010 including the minors and the playoffs. This is undoubtedly a large amount of innings for a young player. In 2010, Tommy had five starts where he gave up 5 or more runs, but he also had 13 starts where he gave up one/zero runs in a start. He should be yanked earlier in 2011 on those 5+ days and not be forced into the 8th or 9th inning on the 1/0 days unless absolutely necessary. While not having Billy Wagner, the Braves still have the depth in the bullpen (Kimbrel, Venters, Linebrink, O'Flaherty, Sherril, Moylan, and hopefully not-Proctor) to make sure that Tommy doesn't need to stay in game if his stuff is not on or if the Braves are clinging to a late lead. By all means, Tommy should take the ball every fifth spot in the rotation, but the 6'6 220lb 2nd year pitcher should still require a few shorter starts.
Yeah, health is a big issue concerning how vital he is, and so are his MLB numbers. But, what really brings value to this team is the fact that he is the best power pitcher of the staff. The Braves led the league last year with a 49.9% ground ball rate, but had below average defense. A career average of 8 K's per 9 is what the Braves need to cut down on the likelihood of bad luck on the diamond. In the four playoff games last year, three were started by groundball pitchers with below average defense behind them. In the playoffs especially, power pitching is a premium. If Hanson can pitch two games in a short best of five series, it likely makes the difference between a series loss or victory. (Think about having Russ Ortiz and Mike Hampton starting in a short series or David Wells and David Cone)
Projecting a healthy Tommy Hanson equals some frontline starter numbers. Hanson's MLB numbers are no fluke. His LOB% is right around average at 74.8%, so he's not walking a tightrope every start (I'm looking at you Matt Cain with that 95.5% LOB in your 3 playoff starts last postseason!). His FIP was 3.50 in 2009 and 3.41 in 2010, which are similar enough to say that is a good barometer of what to expect. One might even say it could go lower as it did after actually pitching in the MLB after a full season. Another reason to expect more from Tommy Hanson is his ability to make adjustments. Consider his first MLB start. Against a potent Milwaukee lineup, Hanson retired the first 10 batters he faced. His 2nd time through the lineup he allowed three runs; 3rd time through it was four runs. He later said he failed to make adjustments. In his next five starts (2 of which were against the Yankees and Red Sox), he pitched 30 innings and allowed all of three runs. He was able to make adjustments in the 2nd and 3rd time facing MLB hitters. His SO/9 in the minors was 10.7. Suffice to say that his MLB strikeout ratio isn't that high, but has not deterred success. During his first full MLB season last year, he was noticeably losing velocity on his fastball. His high fastball average in April was 94mph. His September fastball average low was 90mph. A significant loss on velocity, however, was not a major concern for his effectiveness -- his September ERA was 1.81. He compensated his loss in velocity, missed bats, and strikeouts by issuing noticeably less walks and inducing more groundballs. Somehow, the month of September let Derek Lowe become a strikeout machine and Tommy Hanson become a Greg Maddux impersonator. Derek Lowe is a seasoned veteran and made the necessary mechanical adjustments. Tommy Hanson was in his first full season and made equally savvy responses in order to get folks out. In my opinion, Hanson's adjustments were more impressive than September 2010 Pitcher of the Month Derek Lowe, due to his relative lack of MLB experience. I don't want to waste your time or mine discussing poise, but Tommy Hanson's got it.
If you haven't read it, this BtB article was very good: http://www.beyondtheboxscore.com/2011/1/25/1955027/hansons-drop-in-strikeouts
In what should have been growing pains last September, Tommy Hanson flourished. He's still a power pitcher even if he doesn't live and die by the strikeout. After a full season under his belt, the stamina and experience built up should mean a more steady strikeout rate throughout the season. Even though his strikeout rate declined from his 2009 MLB levels, his FIP improved due to a lower walk rate and less homeruns per flyball. If he were to maintain a more consistent velocity throughout the season, I would expect his FIP to continue to improve and his ERA to follow suit. But really guys, where are Tommy's WINZ OMG? His numbers in 2011 should be very good. Ace-like numbers in fact. Irreplaceable, vital, All-Star, leader-of-the rotation, Game 1 of NLDS starter numbers.
If Hanson starts 30 games this year, we should make the playoffs. If lingering injuries cause him to make less starts, a very capable team from the West or Central may take the Wild Card away from us. If Hanson gets diagnosed as a TJ case late in the season, the Braves could limp into the playoffs like last year. Still, like last year, they will show to be punchless in the playoffs. I'm rooting for a healthy Tommy Hanson from April to November. There's no one we'd miss more than this: http://twitter.com/cyborghanson48