How good is Tommy Hanson?
I am notoriously slow to come around on young players in fantasy baseball. Mostly, it's a matter of value versus hype. We hear so much about the "next big thing" that we begin to salivate at the notion of what a Matt Wieters or Phil Hughes might do, and suddenly we're drafting them way too high. For every Tim Lincecum who became a fantasy star by his second big league season, I'll wager there are 10 David Prices or Clay Buchholzes or Homer Baileys: guys who need more than just a year or two to reach their potential, and who may in fact never live up to their hype.
So if you peruse our starting pitching ranks this spring and happen to notice the Atlanta Braves' 23-year-old righty Tommy Hanson ranked a lofty 17th, perhaps you expect me to freak out and warn you off the kid, much the way I did Clayton Kershaw a couple of weeks ago. Frankly, I'd expect it myself.
But this year, Hanson is perhaps the only exception to my self-imposed rule. I'm a believer. In fact, in my own starter rankings, he's actually 16th. This is the rare case where I think you can believe the hype, and actually draft a player's upside (and relatively limited downside) right now. Let me see if I can convince you.
First, let me acknowledge that Hanson did have a favorable batting average on balls in play (.280) and homer-per-fly ball rate (6.9 percent) and a very favorable strand rate (80.3 percent) in 2009. Those numbers probably help explain how his ERA wound up at 2.89, and I'd expect at least a small correction in each will bump him well into the 3.50 range. But even if that happens, the numbers say you can trust his stuff enough that he'll still be a top-20 fantasy pitcher.
Hanson's best pitch last year was his ridiculous curveball; according to FanGraphs.com, it would've been a top-10 curve in the entire major leagues (in terms of runs per 100 pitches thrown) had Hanson qualified in terms of innings. And Hanson's slider wasn't far behind; it would've been a top-20 offering among big league sliders if he'd pitched enough innings, according to that same FanGraphs criteria. This is pure strikeout stuff, and it doesn't require Hanson to throw high-90s to fan a batter per inning. Guys with breaking stuff this lethal who keep hitters honest with good 92 and 93 mph heat and a manageable 3.24 walks-per-nine are extremely hard to find at any point in their careers, let alone as rookies. I know he threw only 127 2/3 big league innings last year, but Hanson's .192 BAA by right-handed hitters was second-lowest in the majors among pitchers with at least 100 innings, behind only Jake Peavy.
If I compare Hanson with Kershaw (and they're ranked within three starting-pitcher spots of one another in MockDraftCentral.com's average draft position), I like the former's 2010 fantasy prospects much more. Kershaw has yet to prove he can be efficient enough to go deep into games and get decisions, and he racked up nearly five walks per nine innings last year. Meanwhile, Hanson put his fastball over the plate when he needed it and was able to throw 15.5 pitches per inning (compared with Kershaw's 17.7) while fanning 8.18 per 9 (compared with Kershaw's 9.74).
Yes, Kershaw's strikeouts were tastier, but at what cost? He was the 77th-most-efficient qualified starting pitcher in baseball last year (out of 78); had Hanson qualified, he'd have registered 28th. To me, that gives Hanson more margin for error. He should have fewer runners on base (as he did on a per-inning basis last year), should be around for more decisions, and frankly his minor league numbers make a strikeout-rate hike to Kershaw's '09 levels look rather possible (he whiffed 463 in 389 career minor league innings, including 90 in 66 1/3 at Triple-A Gwinnett last year). A lot more can go wrong when you walk the ballpark, as Kershaw has done to this point in his professional career.
What could be the fly in Hanson's ointment this season? He wasn't great against lefties last year: He walked 33 of 282 batters faced, so despite the fact that southpaws batted only .256 against him, his WHIP against them was 1.52. (Compare that with 13 walks against the 252 righties he faced.) Although I think eventually Hanson's stuff projects to a repertoire that will be tougher on lefties, it's probably fair to question whether he's ready to make a leap in that area with only 120-some-odd big league innings under his belt. It's possible this issue rears its head again, and hurts Hanson's top-line numbers more than it did in '09. Still, if that's the kid's "major" blemish, his downside this year really is still awfully high. Not to belabor the Kershaw comparison too much, but teams know Kershaw walks righties at a 5.5 BB/9 rate, and they stack their lineups against the young lefty accordingly (last year, he faced 158 lefties and 565 righties). Teams haven't done the reverse to Hanson yet, and let's face it: It's harder to do against a right-handed pitcher.
I don't think Hanson is ready to be your No. 1 fantasy starter, and I'm pleased to see that fantasy nation hasn't allowed its love for this kid go that crazy. But I do think we're correct in proclaiming Hanson as a high-upside No. 2. The way he kills righties with that breaking stuff and keeps everyone honest with a solid, for-strikes fastball is, in my opinion, the road to a solid fantasy foundation. It's likely to keep his WHIP very low, his ERA manageable, and his strikeouts at least at the 8 K/9 level, with the possibility of more. As I hinted above, statistically this kid looks like a pitcher who's older than 23. He doesn't scare me nearly as much as most starters his age do. I think he's worth the eighth- or ninth-round pick it'll take to make sure you get him in your draft.
Christopher Harris is a fantasy analyst for ESPN.com. He is a six-time Fantasy Sports Writers Association award winner. You can ask him questions at www.facebook.com/writerboy.