Thursday, February 15, 2007

Gang of 13: Joel Hanrahan

As I've looked at each of the pitchers in this series so far, I've managed to convince myself that things might not be as bad as I thought. Each one has had something going in their favor, be it minor league success or just unluckiness with injury. In Joel Hanrahan's case, the closer I look, the less I like.

Hanrahan was the Dodgers 2nd round pick in the 2000 draft. He's a pretty big, hard-throwing right-hander. His fastball zips along in the low to mid-90s, and he has a decent slider. His problem, which is the problem of many a hard-throwing pitcher, is that he has times where he has no idea where either are going.

He made his pro debut for Great Falls, the Dodgers' rookie Pioneer League team in 2000. Just 18, he held his own with a decent, but not spectacular performance. Over the next two years, he'd slowly chug up the ladder, finishing up with 3 starts in Double-A as just a 20-year old. Double-A batters weren't kind to him, but he used his fastball/slider combo to strike out 10 of them in just 11 innings. When you add in his A-ball performance, he K'd an impressive 149 batters in '02. Through those two years, he showed a pretty good ability to keep the ball away from bats. He struck out a bunch, didn't allow too many hits and kept the ball in the park. For good measure, he chipped in a no-hitter while with Vero Beach.

Despite those strengths, his early performances pointed to one weakness: along with that powerful stuff, came an inability to really control it. His mid-3 walks per game totals don't scream out as a huge red flag, but when he had as much of an advantage as his homer and strikeout rate seemed to indicate, it's likely a sign of someone who was getting by on pure stuff, and not command of his pitches.

With that caveat, you'd expect his first full year at double-A to be a learning experience. It wasn't. He dominated the Southern League, winning their best pitching award, winning 10 games with a 2.43 ERA and 130 strikeouts. Even more amazingly, he allowed just 5 homers in over 130 innings -- perhaps the greatest sign of his dominance. The Dodgers pushed him up at the end of the year, getting him a crack at Triple-A as a 21-year old. Just as double-A batters smacked him around in his late-season attempt the year before, so did triple-A batters. Through 5 starts, he had a ghastly 10.08 ERA, and he managed to walk 20 batters in just 25 innings.

Still, he had nothing left to prove at double-A and when 2004 began, he was in Las Vegas, pitching in the PCL. He wasn't able to make the adjustments he had the year before, and was hit hard. The PCL is a pretty strong hitter's league, so his 5.05 ERA isn't as much of a problem as it looks. But those 75 walks are. He did strike out 97 batters, but his Ks per game dropped by about 1.5. He wasn't getting by on pure stuff any more. At the close of the year, the Dodgers would shut him down with shoulder tendinitis. Hanrahan had been struggling with the shoulder all season, perhaps explaining his difficulties.

The last two years have been step backs. The Dodgers, due to his difficulties in Triple-A and his shoulder tenderness, took it easy, working him mostly at double-A, where he had that brilliant 2003 season. He still had the brilliant K rate, but even at the lower level, his control regressed to the point where he walked over 5 per game last year at double-A. (Again, because of the quality of his stuff and his ability to keep the ball in the park, his ERA was quite good: 2.43)

They gave him another chance at Triple-A at the end of last year, and the results still weren't great. His ERA was a passable 4.48, but his 46/39 K/BB rate was putrid, and the luster of prospecthood was gone. After the season, the Dodgers took him off the 40-man roster, and the Nationals signed him as a minor-league free agent.

If you have him at Double-A or below, he's light's out. Triple-A, and he's a mess. So how's he going to fare at the MLB level? Uhoh.

Only two projection systems took a crack at him. ZIPS thinks he's good for a 5.23 ERA with a ghastly 5.2 walks per 9. PECOTA is eerily similar, going with a 5.27 ERA and 5.6 walks per 9. With those walk rates, I really don't see how they can project an ERA that low.

If there's a bright side to him, he's still young. 2007 is his age 25 season, and there's still time for him to harness his stuff. He's supposedly a hard worker, and he's going to need to focus on his delivery to have a consistent command of his stuff. As his performance at triple-A showed, it's not enough to throw hard and overpower batters. He needs to be able to control his pitches and throw smartly.

I look at the sum total of things, and all I have is a little bit of hope. But hope, at least for me, doesn't breed optimism.

3 Comments:

  • Would moving Harahan to the bullpen make any sense? Allow him to open up for short stints rather than try to extend himself as a starter.

    I know the Nationals already have a glut of middle relievers, but couldn't they use some of the more established ones (Ayala or Rauch) as trade pieces and see if Hanrahan can serve in a setup role.

    By Blogger Brian, at 2/16/2007 8:26 AM  

  • The pen could be an option, though, I'm not really sure if there's a spot.

    If he's a hard-thrower with two main pitches, that does seem like the perfect fit. That won't necessarily fix his control, but it could, as you point out, give his stuff just a little more juice. It's an interesting idea, at least.

    By Blogger Chris Needham, at 2/16/2007 8:31 AM  

  • is it just me, or does mere mention of this name brings to mind a slew of offensive and hysterical comments directed at a character named hanrahan in the epic movie "slap shot"?

    By Blogger Bill, at 2/16/2007 12:21 PM  

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