What do ye do with a bum reliever?
What do ye do with a bum reliever?
What do ye do with a bum reliever
Ear-laay in the mooooorning?
I wrote about Craig Hansen in my Guide To Young Sox Pitching earlier this year and correctly predicted that he'd get nothing but shellshocked by virtue of being thrust into the Sox bullpen at the beginning of this season. Poor kid. He had another rough outing last night, managing to record only one out before letting up 2 walks and a hit. So, like, what's going on with Craig Hansen?
I didn't eat breakfast yet and I'm kinda hungry, so let's crunch some numbers together. Yum. Hansen's appeared in 24 games so far this season and faced a total of 113 batters. He's averaging 3.84 pitches per batter, which is what you want from a reliever -- efficiency, kids! Here's the problem: in 24 appearances, Hansen's faced 113 batters but recorded only 74 outs. Yoikes! He's averaging almost exactly an inning (i.e. 3 recorded outs) per appearance, but is averaging 4.7 batters faced per inning. Blech! That combined with his big fat 4.74 ERA can and should be enough to make Sox fans rull nervous about Hansen. (Like, not a single pitcher in Tampa Bay's starting rotation has an ERA above 4.60, and this kid is supposed to be a goddamn setup man. No wonder we can't freaking win a game against those Florida punks.)
I can and will continue to maintain my firmly pro-Hansen stance. I like this kid. I like his stuff. I like the way he throws, and I like the way he makes grown men looks like idiots when they go flailing away at a low-80s slider. That shit turns me on, ok? Additionally, I like that Hansen doesn't walk a lot of batters -- only 15 of those 113 batters were treated to Bases on Balls -- and that he's averaging nearly a strikeout per inning so far this year. I think Hansen's the kind of pitcher who has the potential to maintain a very high K/BB ratio over an entire season (Papelbon's is 5.6, for reference purposes... Hansen's was only 2 last year but I am confident he can top that) and I think he'll be a really top-quality closer down the line. WHEN HE'S READY.
Red Sox Nation was treated to a scintillating glimpse of The Craig That Could Be a couple of Sundays ago during that suprisingly magnificent extra-innings battle against the Cards, when Hansen came on in the top of the 11th with the bases loaded to relieve a struggling Hideki Okajima, on whose recent woes I've also expounded. With Aaron Miles, Yadi Molina (MY LEAST FAVORITE MOLINA), and Adam Kennedy on base and 2 outs, Hansen simply blasted by Ryan Ludwick, striking him out on 3 blistering pitches (fastball, fastball, slider). In the top of the 12th, Hansen struck out two more swinging and then got My Future Husband to ground out. After notching one more out in the 13th he was ganked for lefty Javi Lopez, but those 1.2 innings remained for me the highlight of that weekend (besides seeing my Rick live at Fenway and taking 80,000 blurry photographs of his ass in center field, obvs). Hansen CLEARLY has closer stuff in him. KID'S SHIT IS MONEY.
So what's the problem, then? First of all, it's that Hansen is heavily dependent on being able to work quickly. If he gets off to an immediate 0-1 count, he's generally able to dominate from there on out. Once he gets into the 4th and 5th pitches of an at-bat, though, he's less controlled and batters also tend to read him pretty easily. In that magnificent June 22 outing, Hansen threw just 22 pitches against 5 batters, 17 of which were strikes. Last night he threw 20 pitches against 4 batters, only 9 of which were strikes. His first pitch wound up being a foul bunt off the bat of BJ Upton, but the second pitch went for a swinging strike and Hansen was able to strike him out. However, the next 3 batters in a row Hansen threw balls on the first pitch and was unable to regain control thereafter, ultimately letting up 2 walks and a hit before he was pulled for Manny Delcarmen. The lesson here is clear: Hansen's never going to be a multiple-innings reliever, but his issue isn't so much deterioration after a certain pitch count as it is deterioration within each individual at-bat.
The other issue is that Hansen's slider remains somewhat elusive -- this has been noted in his SoxProspects profile for some time, and it's clear that whether or not Hansen is on is wholly contingent upon whether or not his slider's on. Personally, I think Hansen's too reliant on his slider. Kid's got a great fastball, which tends to be more effective for quickly getting ahead in the count. I love to see him finish batters off with the slider, but for the way he works I think he can and should use his fastball more. Hansen's not the kind of pitcher who works the corners particularly effectively -- even his best sliders don't have much lateral break -- and the reason hitters hit better and better against him as he gets deeper into an at bat is that it's pretty easy to read a guy once you realize he's throwing the ball right down the center every freaking time.
Let's look briefly at the other strong outing Hansen's had recently: June 14 against the Reds, in which he notched his first save of the season. The Sox had pulled to a 6-4 lead in the top of the 10th, and Hansen relieved Jon Papelbon in the bottom of the inning. He got Corey Patterson to ground out and then struck out [cue angelic-sounding music] Jay Bruce, again opening with a fastball. He then let up a single and a walk before inducing a fly out to end the inning. He opened with a slider on all 3 of those at-bats. I MEAN. If I were Hansen's pitching coach I KNOW WHAT I WOULD BE TELLING HIM.
Hansen's clear ability to get batters to strike out swinging is a huge asset. Obviously, a swinging strike vs. a called strike really changes the dynamic of the pitcher-hitter duel. Also -- and it's so easy to overlook this, because we take it for granted -- the ability to just straight up throw a fastball is a pretty invaluable quality in a setup man/closer. A Carmona or Wang (heh) can toss groundball outs all he wants, but nothing says "closer" like a blistering fastball and a couple of quick K's, baby. Hansen's got the goods, no question. I hope he gets the coaching he needs (call me, John Farrell, let's talk) to take him to the level he's fully capable of performing at.