WINSTON-SALEM, N.C.--Even after turning in his second straight start with a dozen strikeouts, Winston-Salem righthander Alec Hansen found nits to pick. After striking out the side--including major league rehabber Michael Taylor--in the first inning, Hansen thought his second and third frames were a little bit shaky.
He gave up a double (one of just two hits he allowed) and walked two, but didn’t allow Potomac any runs. He also racked up three more punchouts during those innings. The thrill of his success in the first inning led to an excess of adrenaline in the second and third innings before he settled down for the remainder of the evening.
Overall, the key to his success both on Saturday night and throughout his recent run of dominance has been his changeup. The pitch--thrown in the high-80s--features late fade away from lefthanders at its best. He left it up multiple times Saturday, but the separation of velocity from his fastball still got Potomac hitters to swing and miss.
“When I’ve been throwing (the changeup) for a strike, which I have been,” he said, “I’m pretty confident and it allows me to really take over the game.”
Hansen, the White Sox’s second-round selection a year ago out of Oklahoma, had four pitches that could flash plus at times, but he rarely had all of his arsenal working at once. He’s been far more consistent as a pro, and his changeup in particular has shown marked improvement.
With a full complement of pitches at his disposal, Hansen has been devastating at both A-ball stops he’s made. Combined between low Class A Kannapolis and Winston-Salem, the mammoth righthander has whiffed 150 hitters against just 40 walks in 114.1 innings. The strikeout total places him second in the minor leagues, behind only Dodgers’ righthander Wilmer Font and his 154 strikeouts.
“He’s been really good,” Winston-Salem pitching coach Brian Drahman said. “He’s corrected a couple of things out of the stretch and the windup, and it’s coming really easy for him right now. I think he’s starting to feel it.”
Specifically, Drahman has worked with Hansen to keep his shoulders as level as can be throughout his delivery. He’ll angle them toward the sky at times, which leads to spates of wildness. Keeping his shoulders level allows Hansen--who estimates he’s closer to 6-foot-9 than his listed 6-foot-7--to better drive the ball down through the zone.
On Saturday, the fastball and changeup were Hansen’s best pitches but both his curveball and slider had their moments as well. He whiffed the second hitter of the game--center fielder Daniel Johnson--on a gorgeous curveball in the zone, and finished his outing by getting Austin Davidson to whiff at a hook in the dirt.
Later in the game he pitched backward some, including a sequence in the sixth inning that featured two changeups followed by a 95 mph fastball, then a curveball followed by another fastball and finally an 87 mph changeup to get a swinging strikeout. He got half of his strikeouts on fastballs--including five swinging--of 95 mph or higher.
When he has everything working, it’s easy to understand why Hansen entered his junior season at Oklahoma as a candidate for the top overall pick in that year’s draft. He struggled so much that season, however, that he was pushed to the Sooners’ bullpen until May. That caused him to fall to No. 49 overall, where the White Sox were happy to snatch him and pay him $1.2 million to sign.
In his first full season as a pro, everything has come together more often for Hansen. His stuff wasn’t perfect on Saturday, but it was more than enough to dominate Potomac. Once it all starts working together, his potential is sky-high.
“He gets in trouble where he might not be throwing strikes with his fastball, the changeup brings it back and it keeps him off his fastball,” Drahman said. “Those two pitches alone are real nice for right here, right now. He had some real good curveballs tonight and he had some decent sliders. He’s going to need that to advance and when he starts advancing those pitches are going to have to come out too.”
• Outfielder Eloy Jimenez continued his torrid stretch since coming over from the Cubs in the trade that sent Jose Quintana to the reigning champions. Jimenez slapped a pair of singles on Saturday, bringing his line with the Dash to .360/.422/.680 in 21 games.
• Potomac center fielder Daniel Johnson made a pair of gorgeous catches in the seventh inning, racing deep into the left-center field gap to haul in what looked like sure extra bases for Jimenez. The next man, Brandon Dulin, hit a fly ball to almost the identical spot as Jimenez, but Johnson easily tracked it down.
• Shortstop Sam Dexter, the White Sox’s 13th-round selection, made a nifty play up the middle on a ball scorched between Hansen’s legs up the middle to take away a hit. He also hit his second professional home run.