It was a treat to watch a matchup Thursday night between two sophomore hurlers: the Atlanta Braves' Tommy Hanson and Chicago Cubs' Randy Wells. Hanson finished third in the NL Rookie of the Year voting last season, while Wells was sixth. Clearly, both pitchers have the potential to play large roles in their respective organizations' futures. However, when they take to the mound, these two hurlers employ very different, yet effective, approaches.
Last season, Hanson's fastball sat at 92 mph, while his slider came in at 83 mph, his curve at 75 mph and his seldom-used change-up at 83 mph, according to Pitch Type velocities at FanGraphs. In the first inning of last night's game, the 23-year-old came out like a man possessed and was throwing his fastball 96-97 mph, his slider 89 mph and his curve 75 mph. The Cubs hitters were simply overmatched, and Hanson struck out the side (with a walk of Derrek Lee mixed in).
Hanson came out in subsequent innings and took a little off his pitches; the adrenaline had clearly drained a bit. Even so, he was still pumping his pitches in at a higher velocity than last season's averages. When all was said and done, he had struck out seven batters in 5 1/3 innings, while issuing three walks and two solo homers. Along with the seven K's, another seven of his outs came on fly balls and two were via the ground ball.
A former minor league catcher who couldn't hit, Wells is already 27 years old. The late bloomer came into the first inning of last night's game showing respectable velocity at 88-92 mph. His approach, though, was to induce contact with his heavy sinker. Wells' ground-ball rate was just shy of 50 percent in 2009 (while Hanson just scraped 40 percent). The Cubs pitcher had his good sinker working Thursday, and he made the Braves hitters look like they should all take up new careers on the mound. And he did it without mid-to-high-90s heat.
Wells induced 13 ground ball outs; that's important because it means none of those batted balls were a threat to go over the wall for a home run, or to split the outfield defense for a bases-clearing triple. Just two of his 18 outs came in the air. When Wells did get into trouble, he was able to defuse the situations with three double plays. Jason Heyward, Atlanta's rookie phenom, was rendered impotent by Wells' approach. The right-fielder could not get any lift on the ball. He rolled into a force play in the second inning and then, after breaking his bat, grounded weakly back to Wells in the fourth. All the Braves hitters shared his frustrations.
In 27 starts in '09, Wells posted a WAR (Wins Above Replacement) of 3.0, while Hanson came in at 2.6 WAR in 21 starts. While the Braves right-hander is clearly a crowd favorite for his radar-busting velocities and eye-popping counting stats, Wells has shown that he can be an equally effective big league pitcher -- albeit with a lower overall ceiling -- by pounding the lower half of the strike zone with sinkers and pitching to contact.