Hanson offers bright outlook for Braves
Rookie pitched superbly for Atlanta in August, hopes to continue it in September
Tommy Hanson and Kris Medlen, best friends and rookie teammates on the Atlanta Braves' pitching staff, have a classic Mutt and Jeff thing going. Hanson stands a rangy 6-foot-6, with red hair and an unassuming demeanor. Medlen, 5-foot-10, is a born talker and a bundle of frenetic energy. The life of the party, you might say.
As yet another September dress-up day approaches, some people around the Braves are lobbying rookie initiation chairman Chipper Jones to go with Rocky and Bullwinkle costumes for Atlanta's two young pitchers. Apprised of the rumor, Medlen pauses for a moment to consider how it might feel to walk through an airport terminal beside his buddy while dressed like a cartoon rodent.
"I would expect something like that,'' Medlen says. "I'm bigger than a squirrel, but he's about the size of a moose.''
That's a new twist on the usual Tommy Hanson four-legged creature comparison. When scouts check out Hanson's velocity, diverse repertoire and innings-eating capacity, they generally see a horse. Either that, or Roy Halladay in training.
Hanson, part of the 2009 prospect holy trinity that includes Tampa Bay pitcher David Price and Baltimore catcher Matt Wieters, has done a nice job living up to the advance billing in his first season in the big leagues. He's 9-3 with a 3.15 ERA, and impressing the Braves in ways that transcend statistics and scouting reports.
Hanson made a positive impression on veteran Tim Hudson during spring training, when he kept his mouth shut and showed he was oblivious to the attention he had received.
"I was impressed with him almost from Day 1,'' Hudson says. "He came 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 left an impression on manager Bobby Cox in spring training, when he tried to pitch through a torn fingernail in his first mound session, and during a Sunday matinee against Boston in late June.
Weakened by a case of the flu, Hanson lolled in the passenger seat as Medlen drove to Turner Field. But he pulled himself together, stayed hydrated and pitched six innings of two-hit shutout ball in a 2-1 Atlanta victory. The game time temperature was 91 degrees.
"If he was sick, I really don't want to see him when he's not sick,'' Boston manager Terry Francona said afterward.
Hanson has put the Elias Sports Bureau researchers to work since joining the Braves in early June. He became the first National League rookie to beat the Red Sox and Yankees in the same season, and his streak of 26 shutout innings was the most by a Braves rookie since Steve Bedrosian logged 27 in a row in 1982. His 11 strikeouts against San Francisco in a start in July were the most by a first-year Braves pitcher since Bob Sadowski whiffed 12 Pirates in September 1963.
Before the season is over, J.A. Happ, Andrew McCutchen, Garrett Jones, Chris Coghlan, Gerardo Parra, Randy Wells and Colby Rasmus will have their say in the NL Rookie of the Year race. But with a strong September, Hanson has a chance to join Earl Williams, Bob Horner, David Justice and Rafael Furcal as Braves to win the award.
Cox raves about Hanson's toughness, makeup and "mound presence,'' and Hudson sees a quiet confidence in Hanson that the great ones possess. While most young pitchers arrive in the big leagues and hope they can get hitters out, Hanson quietly and methodically takes control. He knows he's going to win the confrontation: It's just a question of how.
I was impressed with [Tommy] almost from Day 1. He came 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.” -- Braves pitcher Tim Hudson
"A lot of kids come up and have great stuff and potential, but mentally they can't get over that hump,'' Hudson says. "They have that doubt: 'Am I really going to be this good. Can I really do it at this level?' Tommy just goes out there and does it and believes it. It's not a cockiness. He's just confident in the ability that God has blessed him with.''
Hudson aims an index finger at his temple.
"It's all up here,'' he says, "between the ears.''
Hanson, born in Oklahoma, grew up in Redlands, Calif., about an hour east of Los Angeles. He stood 6-foot-1 as a high school sophomore, and suffered through a gangly phase after sprouting four inches the summer before his junior year.
"I was so awkward,'' Hanson says. "I had no coordination whatsoever. It was brutal. I was just arms and legs going everywhere.''
Hanson spurned a couple of offers from four-year colleges to play junior college ball at Riverside Community College. The Braves selected him in the 22nd round in 2005, and Hanson returned to Riverside and polished his skills enough to receive a $325,000 signing bonus as a "draft and follow'' pick in May 2006.
That was a lot of money considering that Hanson's father is a retired iron worker. Hanson's blue-collar background helped him bond instantly with Medlen, whose dad drives a truck for Federal Express. They're just a couple of no-frills, Southern California kids living the dream.
"When we first moved up in the minors, they told us we had to wear slacks and collared shirts and dress shoes on the road,'' Medlen says. "We're totally cool with it now, but at first we were like, 'This sucks.' I'm more of a T-shirt and jeans type of dude, and so is he.''
Hanson and Medlen have been roommates and pregame throwing partners in Danville, Va., Rome, Ga., Myrtle Beach, S.C., and Pearl, Miss. -- all the way up the Atlanta chain. Now they're enjoying a postseason race as part of one of baseball's deepest staffs. The Braves rank fourth in the majors in team ERA and second in quality starts, and they're deep enough that Cox has had to scramble to work Hudson into the mix now that he's back from Tommy John surgery. Hudson is scheduled to make his first start Tuesday night in Florida.
Atlanta general manager Frank Wren, who took his hits when John Smoltz and Tom Glavine departed under less than optimal circumstances, has done a commendable job of rebuilding the rotation. The Braves acquired Jair Jurrjens and Javier Vazquez in trade, signed Derek Lowe and Kenshin Kawakami as free agents, and called up Hanson after only 389 innings in the minor leagues.
In his last outing, Hanson celebrated his 23rd birthday by going head-to-head with Pedro Martinez in Philadelphia. Hanson gave up a dubious, Citizens Bank Park-aided home run to Ryan Howard, but struck out four batters in two innings. In perhaps his most impressive sequence, Hanson threw a 93-mph fastball, an 84-mph slider and a 77-mph curveball in succession to Chase Utley, who struck out swinging.
Hanson was tagged with an unfortunate loss when two rain delays forced him to call it a night after 29 pitches, and the Phillies made an early lead stand up in a 4-2 victory.
It wasn't much of a birthday present, but in the clubhouse after the game, Hanson was typically stoic and analytical about his performance. 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 says. "It's cool to hear 'Baseball America' saying nice things about you, but I knew I had a long ways to go. I still feel like I have a long ways to go.''
He has plenty of time to learn. Hanson and Medlen will share an apartment in Atlanta's Buckhead District this winter, and they'll reflect upon this season while playing video games and trading good-natured insults. Barely a minute goes by when they're not needling one another about something.
"People act like I'm his sidekick, even though I'm older than him and I moved up to the big leagues before him,'' Medlen says. "That's my claim to fame.''
Then again, some people might have characterized Tom Glavine as Greg Maddux's sidekick. There are worse things in life than being Tommy Hanson's wing man.
"If he's going to be around 20 years, then I'll be his sidekick,'' Medlen says.