We all have questions about the 2010 season and Alex Remington luckily has some answers. The Stew's resident stats guru will address three per week as Opening Day approaches.
The Situation: Tommy Hanson(notes) was one of the best rookie pitchers in baseball last year, finishing third in the National League Rookie of the Year award despite not making his first appearance until June 7. He likely would have won the award if he had pitched 35 more innings, enough to qualify for the ERA title. As it was, he still won 11 games with a 2.89 ERA at the age of 22. Suffice to say that the former top pitching prospect in baseball lived up to his big expectations.
But after the departure of Javier Vazquez(notes), the No. 1 starter on the Braves will be Tim Hudson(notes), who has pitched 42 innings since returning from Tommy John surgery last summer. Four months into Hanson's career, the Braves will need Tommy to pitch like an ace if they have designs on the NL East title.
The Question: How much can the Braves really expect to get out of a 23-year-old who pitched only 127 big league innings in 2009? How do they handle him with baby gloves while also capitalizing on his great first season?
The Analysis: With any young pitcher, the need to protect their health is paramount. In fact, Hanson and the Dodgers' Clayton Kershaw(notes) did something that only seven other under-23 pitchers have done in the past 25 years, posting a 2.89 ERA in at least 127 innings.
The others to achieve the same feat? Kevin Appier, Mark Prior(notes), Bruce Ruffin, Lance McCullers, Sid Fernandez, Bret Saberhagen and Doc Gooden (twice). Each saw their careers hampered by injury and were more or less out of baseball by their mid-30s. All were fabulously talented — Appier, Gooden, Saberhagen and Prior finished third or better in the Cy Young voting by their 25th birthday — which undoubtedly encouraged their managers to put a lot of miles on their arms.
But sooner or later, they all paid the piper. A great year for Hanson in 2010 could have adverse affects down the line, if the Braves aren't careful with his innings.
One of the greatest risks, especially with phenoms, is increasing their workload too quickly. The so-called "Verducci Effect," named after SI's Tom Verducci, states that the injury risk increases for young pitchers whose inning workloads increase by more than 30 innings over their previous year's total. The Braves seem to have kept this in mind: Between the minors and Arizona Fall League, Hanson pitched 166 2/3 innings in 2008. Between the minors and majors he pitched 194 innings in 2009 — about a third of them in a much lower-pressure environment in Triple-A.
Hanson pitched about a full season's workload last year, which means that he should be able to handle 30 starts in the major leagues in 2010. Also promising for the Braves is that he truly seemed to get better as the year progressed. In his first month, he was 4-0 with a 2.48 ERA, but he had an unsustainably bad 5.6 K/9 and 5.3 BB/9 in 29 innings. In his next three months, he was 7-4 with a 3.01 ERA, but a terrific 8.9 K/9 and 2.6 BB/9. Fangraphs' David Golebiewski found that he got a lot of swinging strikes, which means that his strikeouts are likely to stay high. He probably did get lucky — his BABIP was just .280, and his FIP was 3.50, which means that his performance is likely to regress a bit in 2010.
Most projection systems agree: the Bill James system projects him for 191 innings and a 3.30 ERA (with a 3.63 FIP); CHONE projects 152 innings and a 3.91 ERA (with a 3.98 FIP); Heater Magazine's fantasy baseball guide, Graphical Player 2010, projects 180 innings and a 4.46 ERA. Hanson likely won't be a 20-game winner next year, and the Braves shouldn't mind. Investing in arm rest and arm strength now will have big payoffs down the line.
The Forecast for 2010: The Braves will keep sending Hanson out every fifth day, but they won't hesitate to yank him in the 7th and hand the ball off to Peter Moylan(notes) and new acquisitions Takashi Saito(notes) and Billy Wagner(notes). Barring injury, he'll finish with around 15 wins and an ERA between 3.50 and 4.00, and will be one of the best 23-year-old pitchers in baseball. National League hitters should just be glad he's not 24 yet.