Here lies Tommy Hanson, a power pitcher and a Rookie of the Year contender in 2009. He won 10+ games in four of his five big-league season before injuries and family tragedy curtailed his career. Hanson played for the Atlanta Braves (2009-2012) and Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim (2013).
Thomas J Hanson was born in Tulsa, Okla., on August 28, 1986, but the family moved to California when he was 2 years old. Baseball was a passion at an early age. When he wanted to play travel ball, he borrowed his iron-worker father’s acetylene torch and scrapped rebar to raise the funds. “You could get $300 for four tons of metal – pretty good pay for a 12-year-old,” said Tom Sr. Tommy attended Redlands East Valley High School in Redlands, Calif. He graduated in 2004 and spent a year at Riverside Community College. When the spring semester ended, Hanson pitched for the Aloha Knights of the West Coast Collegiate Baseball League. He had verbally committed to Arizona State University, but the Atlanta Braves drafted him in the 22nd Round of the 2005 June Amateur Draft, and he signed for a $325,000 bonus.
“Hanson’s the best pitcher in the league,” said Matt Acker, manager of the Kitsap BlueJackets after Hanson and the Knights beat them 10-1. “You’ve got to play defense and make the most of your opportunities against him. We had our chances, but the kid’s good.”
Hanson threw in the upper 80s when the Braves drafted him, but he had excellent command of four pitches – fastball, curveball, slider and changeup. He spent another year in junior college and joined the Danville Braves in 2006. The team finished first in the Appalachian League, and starting pitcher Jaye Chapman was named the league’s rookie pitcher of the year. However, according to Baseball America magazine, the top-ranked pitcher on the Danville staff was Hanson, who finished the season with a 4-1 record and 2.09 ERA in 8 starts and 5 relief appearances. He fanned 56 batters in 51-2/3 innings and walked just 9. At 19 years old, the 6-foot-6 righthander with the red hair and affable personality was getting noticed.
Hanson continued to make great strides as he rose through the Braves minor leagues. He got his fastball into the low to mid-90s, and he continued to strike out more than a batter per inning. His 5-9 record in 2007 for Class-A Myrtle Beach and Rome may not look impressive, but he had a 3.32 ERA and was the victim of many no-decisions. “Tommy has progressed rapidly,” said Myrtle Beach pitching coach Bruce Dal Canton. “This is a tough league for a 21-year-old to pitch in, but he isn’t afraid to throw the ball into the strike zone.”
Hanson started 2007 back with Myrtle Beach, and in 7 starts, he had a 3-1 record and a 0.90 ERA. He had 49 strikeouts in 40 innings and allowed just 15 hits. In a game against Wilmington, he was removed after 5 no-hit innings, and he struck out 13 of the 16 batters that he faced. When he was promoted to the Double-A Mississippi Braves, the team handed out a laudatory Baseball America article to fans at his first start. He picked up the win over Montgomery by allowing a run on 6-1/3 innings, with 7 strikeouts. The promotion to a higher level didn’t slow Hanson down, as he won 8 games with the M-Braves and had a 3.03 ERA. On June 25, he threw the first 9-inning solo no-hitter in team history, striking out 14 along the way. Between the two teams in 2008, he struck out 163 batters in 138 innings.
Hanson was pretty non-committal about how he reached that next level of performance and maintained it throughout the year. He chalked up to improved command. “All my offspeed pitches, I feel like I can throw in any count,” he told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. My breaking ball, I feel like I can pretty much put it where I need to put it right now, and my change-up too.”
Hanson won 5 games in 7 starts in the Arizona Fall League in 2008 and had another sub-1 ERA – 0.63 to be exact. He was named AFL MVP and then had a great spring training in 2009, though he didn’t make the Opening Day roster. Before the 2009 season started, Baseball America listed Hanson as the Number 4 prospect in baseball, and Baseball Prospectus put him at Number 13. He started the year with the Triple-A Gwinnett Braves and immediately justified those rankings. In 11 starts, he had a pedestrian 3-3 record but a dazzling 1.49 ERA. The Braves kept him from piling up pitches, so he only threw 66-1/3 innings in those 11 starts, but he fanned 90 batters against a mere 17 walks. Finally, the Braves couldn’t keep him in the minors any longer.
Hanson was brought to the Braves in June. New general manager Frank Wren had tried to keep the team in playoff contention by trading for outfielder Nate McLouth and pitcher Javier Vazquez. Looking for one more pitcher, Wren made the difficult decision of releasing rehabbing veteran Tom Glavine from the minors and promoting Hanson instead. “This is not pleasant for anyone,” Wren said of the decision to cut the future Hall of Famer. “Obviously you consider everything when you make decisions, but we think our club has a better chance if we go with a young pitcher like Tommy Hanson.”
Hanson was rocked by the Milwaukee Brewers in his first start on June 7, 2009. He gave up 6 earned runs in 6 innings, including two home runs by Ryan Braun and one by Mike Cameron. After that loss, he rattled off wins in each of his next four starts, allowing just 2 earned runs in that stretch. He fanned 11 Giants on July 20 to pick up his fifth straight win. The Braves slipped to third place, but Hanson kept winning ballgames and ended the year with an 11-4 record and a 2.89 ERA in 21 starts. In 127-2/3 innings, he struck out 116, and opponents hit .225 against him. Hanson finished in third place for the NL Rookie of the Year, behind Florida’s Chris Coghlan and Philadelphia’s J.A. Happ, and ahead of Andrew McCutchen of the Pirates.
The Braves had gone on their dominant division-winning run in the 1990s thanks in part to a dominant pitching staff with three future Hall of Fame pitchers – Greg Maddux, John Smoltz and Glavine. When they left, the team had fallen out of the playoff hunt, so the arrival of a young, potential ace was cause to celebrate. Hanson had a solid sophomore season in 2010, even if he had some uneven pitching performances. He was knocked out of a game in the second inning against Cincinnati on May 20 after giving up 8 runs, including a grand slam by Joey Votto. He was saved by his bullpen, as the Braves won 10-9 with a walk-off grand slam by Brooks Conrad. Hanson worked with pitching coach Roger McDowell to correct some flaws in his delivery and improve his mental approach. He finished the regular season with a strong September, crafting a 2.04 ERA in 6 starts, even though he won just two of them. He finished the year with a 10-11 record and a 3.33 ERA, becoming the first Braves pitcher to have a losing record and an ERA of under 3.50 in more than 30 starts. He also struck out a career-best 173 batters and, on the downside, led the National League by hitting 14 batters.
The Braves finished second in the NL East with 91 wins and earned a Wild Card berth in the playoffs. The team was knocked out of the NL Division Series in 4 games by the San Francisco Giants. Hanson started Game Two and gave up 4 runs in 4 innings. A 3-run homer by Pat Burrell in the first inning was the big blow against him. The Braves rallied to win 5-4 for their only win of the series. It was Hanson’s only postseason appearance.
Hanson had a brilliant first half of 2011 for the Braves, and many felt he was snubbed from the All-Star team. He was among the league leaders in wins, ERA and WHIP, but National League manager Bruce Bochy of San Francisco picked three of his own starters (Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain and Ryan Vogelsong) over Hanson. “As first I was disappointed. I was hoping to pitch in my first All-Star Game,” Hanson said before adding, “Those guys play for him, and this is his way of giving it back to those guys. That’s why he’s a good manager. There’s no hard feelings.” Unfortunately, Hanson was bothered by shoulder pain in the second half of the season and was removed from his last start on August 6 against the Mets after giving up 4 home runs. He was placed on the disabled list with shoulder tendonitis, and despite occasional reports that his shoulder was improving, Hanson didn’t pitch again that season. He finished the year with an 11-7 record and 3.60 ERA.
Hanson won a career-high 13 games in 2012 and fanned 161 batters in 174-2/3 innings, but his ERA rose for a third year, all the way to 4.48. His arm was fine, but his velocity had dropped from the mid-90s to the upper 80s, and opposing batters hit .271 against him. Hanson allowed 27 home runs, which was just 4 fewer than he had surrendered in 2010 and 11, combined. He won just one of his final 9 starts, with an ERA near 5.00. The Braves were bounced from the postseason in a one-game Wild Card Game defeat to St. Louis, with Kris Medlin getting the start over Hanson. That December, the Braves traded Hanson to the Angels for reliever Jordan Walden.
“It’s a good risk on a pitcher we really believe in,” said Angels general manager Jerry Dipoto, dispelling any notion that Hanson was in need of a “bounce-back” season. “Our scouting reports remained consistent with what we’ve always thought of Tommy. He’s done it for four years at the big league level, and we think he’ll continue to do it.”
Others were worried about the velocity decline. “He can survive at that velocity [89-90 mph], but he can’t win consistently there,” a scout told the Daily News. “He still has a power pitcher’s mentality, he’s not a touch-and-feel guy who can live off his offspeed stuff. So unless he finds that velocity again, he’s going to have his share of rough nights.”
Hanson was a long-time Angels fan, having grown up in Southern California. However, his homecoming was disastrous. Hanson battled arm injuries and spent time on the DL once again. He was uneven when he was healthy enough to pitch and was demoted to Triple-A Salt Lake City for a month. He reappeared with the Angels in September but was used out of the bullpen for a couple of appearances. In 15 games with the Angels (13 starts), Hanson had a 4-3 record and 5.42 ERA.
The worst part of the season, far worse than injuries or poor pitching, was the death of his step-brother, Aaron, who passed away in April unexpectedly at the age of 24 from a heroin overdose. The two were extremely close, and Hanson had to step away from baseball several times to deal with the grief. As much as he tried to pitch through the emotional pain, the loss contributed to his uneven performance. An article on Bleacher Report from Scott Miller details Hanson’s struggles with dealing with the pain while still being expected to pitch every fifth game.
Hanson was arbitration-eligible going into the 2014 season, but the Angels declined to offer him a contract, making him a free agent. He signed a contract with the Texas Rangers to fill out their starting rotation, but he didn’t make the team and was released. He ended up pitching for the Charlotte Knights, the Triple-A affiliate of the Chicago White Sox, but he was bothered by continuing injuries and ineffectiveness. He made 15 starts in the San Francisco Giants organization in 2015, but his ERA in 11 starts in Triple-A Sacramento was 5.60.
In 5 seasons in the major leagues, Hanson had a 49-35 record in 123 games, all but 2 of which were starts. He had a 3.80 ERA and a 1.282 WHIP, with 648 strikeouts in 708 innings and 249 walks. His ERA+ in his first three seasons was above 100, and his career mark was 104. According to Baseball Reference, his Wins Above Replacement was 4.9 – 6.7 if you include just his pitching statistics and not his hitting (Hanson was a career .059 hitter).
Hanson had traveled back to Atlanta after the 2015 season and was staying with a friend in the Newnan area. On November 8, he was found unresponsive in his bed. Coweta County paramedics transported him to Piedmont Newnan Hospital, and he was then transferred to Piedmont’s Atlanta campus, still in a coma. He died there on November 9, 2015, at the age of 29, from catastrophic organ failure. Autopsy results later revealed that Hanson had died from delayed complications of cocaine and alcohol toxicity. He was survived by his wife Martha; the two had married in November 2013.
Hanson’s teammate Medlin was so shaken that he could only text a statement to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution rather than speak to a reporter. “Anyone who knows me knows how much Thomas J. Hanson Jr. meant to me. I also feel bad for anyone who didn’t get a chance to know the man. He was the kindest, most loyal person I’ve ever met. He loved his family more than anything in the world, and his friends felt like family when around them. He was not ‘like’ a brother to me, he was my brother and I’m going to miss him so much.”
Hanson is buried at Green Lawn Cemetery in Roswell, Ga.