PHOENIX — Braves pitching prospect Tommy Hanson came to the Arizona Fall League with one primary goal in mind.
“Mainly to come out here and work on my changeup,” Hanson said.
Instead, the 22-year-old righthander has elevated his reputation to that of one of the top pitching prospects in baseball with his performance for the Mesa Solar Sox.
After six starts, Hanson has effectively used his four-pitch arsenal to post a 0.76 ERA with 39 strikeouts and only five walks in 23 2/3 innings. He’s held opposing hitters to a meager .114 average. These numbers don’t include the three hitless, scoreless innings he pitched in the annual Rising Stars Showcase held at the end of the AFL’s third week.
His AFL performance comes after a year in which he finished 3-1, 0.90 at high Class A Myrtle Beach and 8-4, 3.03 at Double-A Mississippi. It was Hanson’s third professional season after being picked in the 22nd round of the 2005 draft as a draft-and-follow out of Riverside Community College. His season included a no-hitter for Mississippi.
Hanson’s got a pretty good idea why he’s been successful in Arizona.
“Just the consistency of my breaking pitches,” he replied. “All my off-speed pitches felt really good out here. I’ve been able to throw them for strikes when I need to.”
Hanson’s success is no surprise to Mesa skipper Rocket Wheeler, who was with him for parts of the past two seasons as manager of the Myrtle Beach Pelicans.
“I saw a different Tommy Hanson take the ball field (this year) as opposed to ’07 when he came up halfway through the year,” Wheeler said. “Tommy got hit around in ’07 a little bit. It’s not that he didn’t believe in his stuff. When he took the mound this year it was like a new person. He knows what he wants to do, he knows what pitches he wants to throw, and for the most part all year, he’s thrown every pitch he wants to throw and put it where he wants to put it.”
Fellow Braves farmhand Tyler Flowers, Hanson’s primary catcher in the AFL, has witnessed the steady improvement.
“I’ve seen a lot of growth since I caught him early in the year in Myrtle Beach,” said Flowers. “He looked pretty sharp, but nothing like he is now. The addition of his slider has been his special pitch; it really keeps the hitters off balance. They can’t really cheat. To catch up to the fastball now, they have to respect that slider. His changeup’s coming along and he’s got that devastating curveball that definitely buckles the hitters all the time.”
Solar Sox pitching coach Ray Burris points out one other important attribute that Hanson has going for him—his cerebral approach to pitching.
“Where he has raised his game is knowing how to take his mental toughness to another level,” said Burris, the Tigers pitching coach at Double-A Erie. “The consistency that he has developed in his mind, in his pitch selection and his approach has been remarkable.”
Judging from his results in Arizona, it’s difficult to imagine that Hanson had to correct any flaws this fall. But he credits Burris with helping him improve his approach at the start of the game. It’s the single most important lesson he’s learned this fall.
“I usually struggle in the first inning in finding the strike zone, getting too pumped up and leaving my fastballs high,” Hanson said. “He (Burris) had Flowers set up in the middle of the plate ‘¦ I try to get downhill, get to my balance point, and start working downhill and get to the bottom of the zone before I start hitting corners.”
His name was mentioned in numerous trade rumors earlier in the fall, but the laid-back Hanson didn’t let it bother him. He acknowledged that trades are part of the game and that whatever happens is out of his control. He has since been told by Braves officials that he will not be traded, that he’s very much in their plans.
“All I try to worry about is going out and pitching,” he said.
To say that Hanson’s done a great job this fall is an understatement. He’ll go to spring training with a chance at a rotation spot in Atlanta sometime in 2009, perhaps at the beginning of the season.
“He’s been a dominant pitcher out here,” Wheeler said. “He’s made a statement that he wants to pitch in Atlanta next year. I’m looking for great things out of Tommy.”
Wheeler then corrected himself, saying, “Greater things.”
Tyler Flowers (Braves) ripped four home runs last week, including three in one game against Surprise on Nov. 12, to take the league lead with 11. With four regular-season games remaining, the Georgia native is three behind the league record set in 2005 by Brandon Wood (Angels).
The Solar Sox catcher, who hit 17 homers for Myrtle Beach during the regular season, believes he is just building on his year in the Carolina League with only a slight modification.
“My approach at the plate stayed the same,” Flowers said. “I made a small mechanical adjustment, raising my hands up a little bit, but other than that it’s the same approach every day. I haven’t been missing as many pitches and the ball carries nice out here.”
Chicago Cubs first baseman Derrek Lee was awarded a Distinguished Alumni Award prior to Saturday night’s game at Hohokam Stadium, spring training home of the Cubs. His AFL number, 32, was retired from future use by Mesa Solar Sox players. Lee was named to the AFL Hall of Fame last year.