It is well-known by now that former Atlanta Braves and Los Angeles Angels starter Tommy Hanson passed away suddenly last night at just 29-years-old. Despite his status as a 22nd round draft pick in 2005, Hanson posted impressive numbers in his quick rise to the big leagues that made him a key piece of two pretty good Braves teams in 2009 and 2010. For a time, however brief, Tommy Hanson was a promising young asset to any major league pitching staff.
Hanson began the 2009 season in Triple-A Gwinnett at just 22-years-old and immediately made it clear that the Braves needed him in their rotation. In 11 starts with Gwinnett, Hanson went 3-3 across 66 1/3 innings, but he posted a 1.49 ERA (2.37 FIP) with a jarring 5.29 strikeout-to-walk rate in that time. Triple-A was child’s play for Hanson, and in June 2009, the Braves gave him his big chance.
His first start was on June 7, 2009 against the Milwaukee Brewers, and it wasn’t good; while he did go six innings, he surrendered six earned runs on six hits in what was ultimately an 8-7 winning effort for the Braves. The three home runs he allowed in this start were surprising, compared to the five he surrendered in his 11 minor league starts that same year.
Chalk it up to nerves, because Tommy Hanson became lights out from that point forward. In his next seven starts, he went 5-0 with a microscopic 2.14 ERA over 42 innings. Batters were only managing a .212/.322/.325 slash against him, and only hit two home runs off him in that period. Three of those starts were logged as quality starts, and he saw his first double-digit strikeout performance on July 20th when he punched out 11 San Francisco Giants hitters in an 11-3 Braves victory.
Hanson finished his 2009 season with an 11-4 record and 2.89 ERA, allowing a superb .225/.301/.358 opponents’ slash and an impressive 2.52 strikeout-to-walk rate. He threw nearly 200 innings between Gwinnett and Atlanta and ultimately his big league performance earned him third place in the National League Rookie of the Year vote, behind J.A. Happ and award winner Chris Coghlan.
His first full season in 2010 continued to impress, when he threw for 202 2/3 innings across a full 34-start schedule. While his ERA ballooned slightly to a still-impressive 3.33, his strikeout-to-walk rate also increased to 3.09. His 1.174 WHIP was an improvement over 2009, allowing just 8.1 hits per nine innings. The Braves made the playoffs in 2010, and Hanson’s pitching down the stretch helped them get there; opponents only hit .176/.225/.252 against him in his last seven starts between September and October, resulting in a 2-1 record and awesome 1.81 ERA. His microscopic 0.83 WHIP certainly helped.
Trends like these carried with him through the rest of his tenure with the Atlanta Braves. Hanson can legitimately be considered one of recent history’s most egregious All Star snubs. In 2011, he was 10-4 with a 2.44 ERA and was third among all NL starters with 9.5 strikeouts per nine innings at the break. He also led the league in opponents’ batting average when hitters could only muster a .190 average against him. Hanson struggled mightily after the break before being shut down for the remainder of the year after an August 6th start against the Mets.
Following an unimpressive 2012 campaign, Hanson was traded to the Los Angeles Angels for All Star reliever Jordan Walden in an effort to strengthen the back-end of the bullpen ahead of Craig Kimbrel. The trade came through as a shock for Braves fans. Hanson was mediocre at best in 2012, but he was only 25 and his upside was significant. Many saw this trade as a win for the Angels.
Alas, it wasn’t. Hanson’s struggles followed him to Disneyland, and in 15 appearances (13 starts) he posted an unimpressive 5.42 ERA and 4.83 xFIP. His ground ball rate dwindled, as did his strikeout-to-walk rate, and he simply didn’t showcase the dominance he proved in Atlanta. 2013 was Tommy Hanson’s last season in Major League Baseball.
Hanson toiled away in the Chicago White Sox and San Francisco Giants minor league systems over the last two years, but was never able to reclaim his former glory. He struggled with injury and command issues, but still had upside. He was only going to be 29 in 2016, and still had a lot of time in his career to straighten things out and re-establish himself as a third or fourth starter, or maybe even a reliever.
Sadly, Hanson never had the chance to reclaim that glory and redeem his career for a happy ending. He fell by the wayside, and only made headlines for the first time in years because of the “catastrophic organ failure” that tragically ended not just his career, but his life.
Even though Tommy Hanson never became the pitcher baseball pundits thought he would be in 2009 and 2010, and even the first half of 2011, those seasons should be remembered and serve as a testament to the kind of pitcher he was rather than what could have been. Because if he were still with us and retired tomorrow, he would have an awful lot to be proud of.