WSB-TV and others are reporting that Tommy Hanson has died at the age of 29. They are reporting that he suffered a catastrophic organ failure and was rushed to Piedmont Hospital, where he passed away on the night of Monday the 9th.
This is a hard one for all of us. He’s three years younger than me, probably younger than nearly anyone here. He was one of the Braves’ last draft-and-follow picks, taken in the 22nd round in 2005, quickly establishing himself as one of the Braves’ premier pitching prospects. In 2007, at the age of 20, he pitched on the same High-A Myrtle Beach team as Kris Medlen (21) and Jonny Venters (22). At that point, Medlen was still a reliever and Venters still a starter. The next year, he made it up to Double-A Mississippi. The following year, he was in the majors, where he went 11-4 in 127 2/3 innings, earning third place in the Rookie of the Year voting.
He came in the nick of time, too. The 2008 Braves were simply awful — the worst Braves team since the 1980s, utterly wrecked by injuries and finishing 72-90 after a raft of preseason expectations of making the playoffs. That was the second and final year that Mark Teixeira would suit up as a Brave. Though the team sold the farm for him, and fell five games short of the playoffs in 2007, Teixeira started the year cool and the team never got on track, finally selling him for scrap as they stood in late July with a 49-56 record. The team went 23-34 the rest of the way. They needed help. By the end of the year, Baseball America ranked Hanson as the fourth-best prospect in baseball. By June 2009, he was up for good.
With his herky-jerky motion — he nearly paused in the middle of his motion, and his pitch appeared to use just his arm and elbow — that generated a stiff fastball and killer curve, he stymied hitters. Bolstered by a brilliant season from Javier Vazquez and the best year of Jair Jurrjens’s career, the 2009 Braves weathered disappointing years from Derek Lowe and Kenshin Kawakami (who really wasn’t that bad, but somehow earned his way into the doghouse and never managed to get out of it), and finally managed to get rid of Jeff Francoeur — the most important of the Baby Braves was gone, and the Braves’ best prospect since the 2005 youth movement was in the bigs.
All of that led the Braves to a dead cat bounce and a perfectly respectable 86-76 record in Tommy’s rookie year. But he had electrified the team, and even inspired his own parody account, the great Cyborg Tommy Hanson.
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The team then won 91 games in 2010, earning a wild card berth. But they ran into an immediate buzzsaw — the San Francisco Giants in an even year, winning the first of their three championships in a five-year period. Tommy didn’t really factor into it, but he started the only game the Braves won — he got knocked out after giving up four runs in the first four innings, while Matt Cain allowed only a single run in 6 2/3, but the Braves pen threw up seven innings of zeroes (Mike Dunn, Peter Moylan, Jonny Venters, Craig Kimbrel, Billy Wagner, and Kyle Farnsworth) and the Giants pen gave up a bunch of late runs.
That was the only playoff start of Tommy Hanson’s career. The next year, the Braves missed the Wild Card by a single game, and the year after that, the Braves made the Wild Card but lost the first-ever Wild Card Game. Tommy, meanwhile, had never quite replicated the results of his rookie season. From 2010 to 2012, he twirled 507 1/3 innings in 87 starts, with a higher ERA, a lower strikeout-to-walk ratio, and an average fastball velocity that declined approximately 1.5 miles per hour each season. His 2012 in particular was worse than league average, his 4.48 ERA buoyed by the 27 homers he gave up in just 174 2/3 innings.
That offseason, the Braves traded him for Jordan Walden, a former Angels closer with a funky delivery of his own who had been beset by injuries of late. Walden thrived in Atlanta, but Hanson got bombed in Anaheim. He made 13 starts in 2013, putting up a 5.59 ERA before finally getting removed from the rotation in August. He pitched in Triple-A in 2014 and 2015, putting up a 5.87 ERA in 102 2/3 combined innings.
Tommy burned bright and fast, and in retrospect it seems like he went from phenom to burnout in almost no time. But he was a really good pitcher from 2009 to 2011, and one of the last great gifts that John Schuerholz left to Frank Wren, along with Medlen and Venters. He was instrumental in helping the team make it to the postseason in 2010 and a key contributor to the playoff team in 2012, even though his numbers were significantly down that year.
But when I think of him, I think of the excitement that I felt as a Braves fan, staring across the wasteland of a 90-loss team, because he was so clearly the future. When he came up in 2009 and started to dominate the league, it really reignited our hopes for another great run of Braves teams. For a brilliant three years, he lived up to the hype and then some.
It is terribly sad and frankly incomprehensible that he’s gone. But I’m so glad I got a chance to root for him. My thoughts go out to his family and loved ones. I hope that they can find comfort. Hug someone you love tonight.