Every few years, a pitching phenom comes along who adds instant excitement to Major League Baseball. Last year, it was Tommy Hanson of the Atlanta Braves. And in only his second year in the Majors, Hanson has lived up to the advance billing and established himself as one of baseball's true aces.
After a remarkable rookie campaign in 2009, when he finished an impressive 11-4 with a 2.89 ERA and 116 Ks in 127.2 innings, Hanson is racking up strikeouts and wins in 2010 for the contending Braves. Hanson is quick to give credit where it's due.
"The coaching that I received in the minor leagues was just phenomenal," Hanson said. "With the Braves, working with (pitching coach) Roger McDowell and (catcher) Brian McCann helped take me to the next level. Their knowledge and support has helped me excel in the big leagues."
When you think of flame-throwing pitchers, you think of the big nasty guys like Randy Johnson and Roger Clemens, who pitched through intimidation. The red-headed Hanson - who was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, but grew up in Redlands, Calif. - is calm and easy going. But don't let his unassuming demeanor fool you.
"Basically I'm just a calm, laid-back guy, but once I go out on the mound, I get that competitiveness going and I get aggressive," Hanson said. "I like to attack hitters and go right at them with my stuff. I am a strikeout pitcher and always have been. My pitching style is to strikeout every batter I face."
Despite the immense talent, Hanson has impressed the Braves in ways that goes beyond statistics and scouting reports. He's made a favorable impression on his teammates and coaches, especially during spring training when he showed humility and his place on the team.
"I was impressed with him almost from Day 1," said Braves ace Tim Hudson. "He came in with a lot of hype, and I was like, 'OK, let's see how good this kid is.' I was expecting some big stud coming in who was real cocky. But you know what? It was just the opposite. He was really humble. He would be in the outfield shagging balls and carrying the bucket. I think he volunteered. It was refreshing to see."
Hanson has a stoic confidence that the great ones possess. While most young pitchers arrive in the big leagues and are not sure they can get hitters out, Hanson methodically takes charge on the mound.
"A lot of kids come up and have great stuff and potential, but mentally they can't get over that hump," Hudson said. "Tommy just goes out there and does it and believes it. He's just confident in his ability."
On The Way Up
Hanson attended Redlands East Valley High School in Southern California. He was a big kid in high school, standing 6-foot-1 as a sophomore. When he sprouted an additional four inches the summer before his junior year, he suffered through an awkward, gangly phase. A diamond in the rough, Hanson didn't see scholarship offers from Division I universities, so he decided to play junior college ball at Riverside Community College.
In 2005, he was selected in the 22nd round (677th overall pick) by the Atlanta Braves as a draft-and-follow pick. He returned to Riverside and polished his
skills, eventually receiving a $325,000 signing bonus from the Braves in May 2006.
With his blue-collar background (his father is a retired iron worker), Hanson is just a no-frills, Southern California kid living the dream. As a former 22nd-round pick turned baseball sensation, he's seen the game from both sides.
"I never got attention, so once it started happening, I knew I had to keep working," Hanson said. "It's cool to hear scouts saying nice things about you, but I knew I had a long ways to go. I still feel like I have a long way to go."
In 2006, Hanson began playing for the Danville Braves of the Appalachian League, finishing the season 4-1 with a 2.09 ERA. In 2007, he started the year at A-Rome, where he was named Player of the Year. He also pitched in 11 games at A-Myrtle Beach. By season's end, Hanson was named as the best pitching prospect in the South Atlantic League by Baseball America.
During the 2008 season, Hanson embarrassed minor league hitters, posting absurd numbers at two minor league levels (AA-Mississippi and A-Myrtle Beach) - combining for an 11-5 record with a 2.41 ERA, 139 strikeouts, and a .175 batting average against in 138 innings pitched. Hanson threw a no-hitter while at Mississippi, the team's first ever no-no. Hanson continued that domination in the Arizona Fall League, leading the prestigious league in wins (5), ERA (0.63) and strikeouts (49). Nicknamed "the Hibernator" for his love of sleeping, Hanson became the first pitcher in the league's 16 year history to win the MVP award.
In 2009, Hanson began the season at AAA-Gwinnett, going 3-3 with a 1.49 ERA and 90 strikeouts in 60 1/3 innings. Ranked as the Braves' No. 1 prospect by Baseball America, he got the call from Atlanta on June 3 and made his major league debut on June 7 against the Milwaukee Brewers.
"This was something that I worked for my whole life," Hanson said. "To finally make it to the majors was a dream come true and sharing that moment with my family was more exciting than I could have imagined."
Hanson quickly made his mark, putting together a string of quality starts and record-breaking numbers. He became the first National League rookie to beat the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees in the same season, and his streak of 26 shutout innings was the most by a Braves rookie since Steve Bedrosian recorded 27 in a row in 1982. His 11 strikeouts against San Francisco in a July start were the most by a Braves rookie pitcher since Bob Sadowski fanned 12 Pirates in 1963.
Why Is Hanson So Good?
The rangy 6-foot-6 right-hander brings a four-pitch arsenal to the mound. Hanson's fastball hits mid-90s on the radar gun and he controls it well. He has a nasty overhand curveball with tight spin that actually looks like a fastball coming out of his hand, so the pitch buckles batter's knees. His slider is devastating, drawing comparisons to that of Braves legend John Smoltz. And his changeup is solid enough to keep hitters off balance. When he's on, Hanson is nearly unhittable, toying with batters as he mixes his pitches in-and-out of the strike zone.
"I pitch off my fastball," Hanson said. "I throw my fastball a lot. Then I have my slider, my curveball and my changeup. Basically, I try to go right after hitters and to keep them off balance."
His pitching mechanics are efficient and precise. He consistently repeats his delivery down to the point of release. The fastball, curveball, slider, and change-up all generally come from the same arm slot and each pitch is thrown on the same plane. When you factor in Hanson's velocity, diverse repertoire and innings-eating capacity, he's the proverbial "work horse."
"The MLB season is a long one and that can take a toll on a player's body and mind," Hanson said. "But this is what I love to do."
During the 6-month baseball season, Hanson focuses on getting a lot of rest, but he also mixes in moderate workouts. During the offseason, he picks up the intensity of the workouts, though he also finds time to relax with his family and friends.
"I like to do some type of workout every day," Hanson said. "I am a motivated person, so I create a plan and stick with it."
The 23-year-old is a big proponent of core muscle training. The same way a golfer, boxer, and tennis players use their core muscles to generate power, so do the best pitchers in the game. Strong core muscles allow the transfer of powerful movements to the arms and legs.
"Core strength really helps with so many aspects of baseball," said Hanson, who admits his least favorite exercise is running.
After a grueling workout, Hanson knows the importance of proper nutrition. He's all about the protein. His post-workout regiment includes his favorite protein source: Supreme Protein bars.
"I have always been a big protein guy and love Supreme Protein," says Hanson. "It is hard to eat healthy all the time, but I try to stay as healthy as possible especially during the season. Supreme Protein bars are a big part of my diet. The bars taste great and have a high protein content to help rebuild my body after my workouts."
Hanson is earning respect in the clubhouse for his exceptional work ethic and focus, as well as his toughness and character. He's not one to sign a fat contract and get lazy; he's just not hard-wired that way.
"Every time I go out I want to get better," Hanson continued. "I want to learn. I want to pitch in the big leagues for a long time. I take my job seriously. I just want to keep working hard and keep going along this path."
Another pitching legend has been born in Atlanta, and one that will join the ranks of aces like Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux, and John Smoltz. National League hitters' worst nightmare, Tommy Hanson will be contending for Cy Young awards and NL pennants for a long time.