April 18, 2011

A Relief Ace Emerges

When Joel Hanrahan came over to the Pirates from Washington, he looked like a classic mediocre pitcher. He was 27 and owned a 5.30 ERA in 115 career games. He also had a 7.71 season ERA at the time of the trade in June 2009 and had walked five batters per nine innings in his career.

Hanrahan had an excellent second half in 2009, only not much of anyone was watching. For the Pirates that year he had a 1.72 ERA in 33 games, struck out 10.6 batters per nine innings and allowed zero home runs. Batters hit .204 against him and slugged .265. Those numbers were lost in his season stats since he could only bring his ERA down to 4.78.

Last year, Hanrahan dialed up his fastball velocity from an average of 94 to an average of 96 mph. He hit 99 with regularity. He had a 15.75 ERA on April 22 but the rest of the way it was 2.88. He also struck out a Marmolesque 100 batters in 69.2 innings. Batters managed a line of only .221/.299/.350 off the ace for the season. This performance prompted the Pirates and manager Clint Hurdle to anoint Hanrahan the closer before spring training.

This year, Hanrahan has managed an average fastball of 97.3 mph and has been perfect in five save chances. Also, under new management, Hanrahan has adopted an entirely new pitch selection. Last year he threw 69% fastballs and 31% sliders. This year he has thrown his fastball a full 90% of the time.

A side benefit of throwing mostly fastballs is the ability to go more than one inning. When Hanrahan retired four straight batters to close the April 4 game in St. Louis, incredibly he earned the Pirates' first save of more than one inning since 2007. He did it again with a five out save Sunday, rescuing Evan Meek - who incidentally looks injured from this view - and hitting 101 mph on the FSN radar gun while pitching to his seventh batter.

While more famous veterans have lost their closing jobs or are in danger of doing so, Joel Hanrahan has quietly become one of baseball's best closers. The nation will no doubt see this in the World Series.

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