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Jesse Hahn is a dark horse to crack the A’s rotation

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Will moving back to his old arm slot make Jesse Hahn a good pitcher again?

MLB: Tampa Bay Rays at Oakland Athletics Neville E. Guard-USA TODAY Sports

It’s time! Spring Training is upon us. Time to over-analyze ever nugget that comes out of Arizona in regard to the green and gold. Football is over, basketball is at its All-Star break, and golf is golf. That leaves the best sport of all to entertain us with tiny yet exciting rumors.

Enter Jesse Hahn, along with all the other pitches and catchers. Hahn is a bit of the forgotten man; being injured or terrible for two consecutive years will do that. But outside Sonny Gray and Sean Manaea (and Frankie Montas, but that’s a story for another time) there’s no one in the A’s depth chart with the upside that Hahn commands. He’s put up big league numbers in the range of a number two starter before, the velocity and stuff appears to still be there, and he’s still just 27 years of age.

The A’s insist the starting rotation competition is still open just as it should be. Sonny Gray, Kendall Graveman, and Sean Manaea are obvious locks, and there’s no doubt that Jharel Cotton and Andrew Triggs have arguments to snag a spot on the opening day roster. But neither are without question marks either and as we saw with Hahn last season, the A’s aren’t afraid to send a struggling arm to AAA. If Cotton or Triggs falter in spring, don’t be shocked to see either start the year in AAA.

That would open the door for Hahn, presuming a solid spring.

It hasn’t been long since Hahn was good

Bad baseball years are like dog years, every bad season feels like seven. That’s why Hahn’s 2015 success seems so far back, and why his fruitless 2016 felt so darn long. In reality, it was just 9 bad games at the big league level, with an ERA north of six and an OPS against that was roughly the same as Ryon Healy’s season. Hahn was awful, but in a small sample in a single season.

Le’ts remember the good times! In 2014, Hahn made his way to the bigs for the Padres, a team that will make you appreciate the team we currently have. In just under half a season there, Hahn posted a 3.07 ERA with a 3.40 FIP, striking out 8.59 per 9 IP. After being traded for Derek Norris that offseason, Hahn started the 2015 season in the A’s rotation. His season started off a touch rocky and his strikeouts more or less evaporated, but Hahn ended up with a fine line. His 3.35 ERA was dropping as his season wore on, and his 3.51 FIP shows it wasn’t a complete fluke in spite of the lack of strikeouts. That success was likely due to a forgiving home ballpark, an exit velocity below that of league average (87 MPH vs. 88.5 MPH), and a solid groundball rate.

Of course, Hahn’s season was cut short by a serious injury. That led to a terrible 2016 in which Hahn was just wildly ineffective. Arguably the most important part of 2016, though, is that Hahn stayed healthy. His velocity was up and he missed no time on the disabled list. By and large, the from promising stud from 2015 is still in there, waiting to be harnessed.

Back to the old arm slot

After 2015, Hahn made a change. It’s not clear what the impetus was, though one could surmise that it had to do with missing the second half of the season with an injury that portends to Tommy John Surgery, something he already had. Maybe making a change wasn’t the worst idea.

And make a change Hahn apparently did. He shifted his release point, ever so slightly it seems.

Hahn’s 2015 release point
Hahn’s 2016 release point

Now, he’s heading back to his old one.

Hahn made other changes in that offseason, namely ditching his slider in the interest of health. That alteration might seem small from a percentage standpoint (he only threw it 5% of the time to start with) but it can greatly affect any pitcher in any at bat. Losing a weapon, no matter how infrequently it’s thrown, can have a major impact that’s hard to quantify. Hitters have one less pitch to worry about, and a missing piece of a pitching arsenal can have major effects.

What did Hahn’s fastball (which can be considered a sinker) look like in 2016?

For those of you who forgot your headphones at work, the TL;DR is that Hahn sacrificed movement for velocity last year. Here are the numbers.

Hahn’s sinker

Stat 2015 2016
Stat 2015 2016
Sinker Velo 93.15 95.1
Sinker Vertical Movement 6.74" 5.99"
Sinker whiff % 7.83% 5.65%
Sinker GB % 13.63% 13.78%
Ball % 30.50% 30.74%
Fastball value 11.3 0.1

The sinker was indeed much faster and it did sink significantly less. His control was roughly the same (actually hitting the zone), but his command took a serious step back, something anyone who watched two seconds of Hahn could tell you. As you can tell from his zone profiles, he threw the ball right down the middle more frequently in 2016 than 2015 and lived higher in the zone.

By and large, Hahn was throwing worse quality pitches, specifically sinkers, into worse locations. Those two factors could easily be fixed by a small release point change

While the sinker could be fixed, the slider isn’t coming back. It’s unclear exactly why Hahn was so much worse in 2016, and while the command was no doubt a big factor, the missing put-away pitch could have had just as big an impact.

Which Hahn will we see in 2017?

Jesse Hahn’s stuff is good enough, even without a slider, to be an effective big league pitcher. It isn’t good enough to live in the heart of the zone, especially if it’s going to move with far less movement than it did before. But Hahn moving back to his old release point could mean more movement, better command, and a pitcher who can succeed like he did before. Can he stay healthy while doing so?

Hahn doesn’t need to get all the way back to his 2015 form to be worthy of a starting spot, and making a slight change might get him there. Spring Training, commence.