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3 paths for Jesse Hahn, enigmatic Oakland A’s pitcher

Can he ever return to form and be an asset for the A’s?

MLB: Spring Training-Oakland Athletics at Los Angeles Dodgers Rick Scuteri-USA TODAY Sports

Spring has come and gone, unlike Jesse Hahn’s command or his spot in the Oakland A’s rotation. Those never really showed up, and the dude hasn’t been able to throw quality strikes in well over a year. He’s transitioned from a solid No. 2 into general AAA detritus.

Perhaps he could look to his teammate Yonder Alonso for inspiration. Hahn and Alonso have a lot in common. Both have high ceilings, but after early-career success things haven’t worked out. Alonso is getting to crunch time in his career as his 30th birthday approaches next weekend, and that caused him to make a major change in his game this season — specifically, adjusting his swing to hit the ball in the air more. Is it time for the 27-year-old Hahn to start considering a similar route, and look for ways to evolve his own approach? Here are the options.

Staying the course

Hahn isn’t the same guy who mowed down the Tigers’ stellar lineup nearly two years ago with a rapidly dropping ERA. He dropped his slider, leaving him without a true put-away pitch, as his curveball has always lacked consistency.

The loss of the slider is hard to quantify, and it’s certainly a big deal. But it’s a pitch he only threw 5% of the time with varying success. Prior to being acquired by the A’s, Hahn was better known for his big curveball and blazing sinker. That’s not to say the slider isn’t important, but scouts and fans alike seemed to think his success depended on his other offerings.

Losing that slider definitely hurts his upside, but Hahn should still be able to hack it in the rotation. He might not be the No. 2 or 3 he was before, but a No. 4 or 5 would still provide value, and having a back-of-the-rotation guy with Hahn’s kind of stuff would be a big win. With that kind of upside at the back of the rotation, you can expect the occasional great start out of a slot otherwise expected to throw five meh innings.

Hahn clearly needs to change something to get to the level of a backend starter, even if it’s far below his ceiling. He needs to find the zone, he needs to control his curveball, and he needs to find the ability to put people away. This would require some sort of adjustment — Hahn has completely lost his ability to hit his spots, but he’s done it before so hopefully he can find it again.

The reliever route

Take a gander down the list of best relievers in the game, and you’ll notice a common theme. Some of them are converted catchers, some have always been relievers all along, but a good portion are former starters. Some of those starters were decent, but a good number were outright bad. Hey, Jesse Hahn is outright bad!

There’s a player who comes to mind as an excellent comp for Hahn the potential reliever, and that’s John Axford. These days, Axford is a flamethrower, leaning on his power sinker and looping curve to get groundballs. His arsenal isn’t exactly the same as Hahn’s; Axford still uses a slider too.

Where that comp really resonates is the control and command piece. There’s no doubt Axford still has the stuff to be a great reliever like he was early in his career. His issue is throwing strikes, specifically good ones, which has led to an increase in both walks and home runs for the veteran righty. Hahn as a reliever has the potential for both good and bad Axford — he’s got great stuff with limited command.

Hahn as a reliever is an exciting proposition thanks to his velocity. In 2016, his fastball regularly touched 97 mph with ease, a number that could potentially shoot up in shorter stints. Velocity correlates with strikeouts, and the game has seen just how valuable a dominant, power throwing pen can be. The World Champion Cubs paid through the nose for flamethrower/prick Aroldis Chapman, as did the runner-up Indians for Andrew Miller. The thought of Hahn throwing 99 mph darts late in games should make you drool.

Hahn as a reliever is all theoretical. It’s hard to say, especially from my remarkably uncomfortable couch, if Hahn would figure out the command piece. For some it happens, for others it doesn’t, and there doesn’t seem to be an easy way to know for whom it will. We’ve seen that Hahn the flamethrower isn’t superior to Hahn the slightly less flamethrower — he lost command and movement to gain those precious mph in 2016.

But extra velocity is always a good thing, provided it’s harnessed. In the pen, he could theoretically gain velocity and command, as the latter would be a simpler proposition in shorter stints. Allowing Hahn to really focus on a smaller repertoire should enable him to throw quality strikes. We just can’t know for sure, but it might be the path of least resistance.

The complete overhaul

Retooling your swing is all the rage right now, and for good reason. Players have found new life by unlocking their power, and it’s truly a treat to see.

It’s a little more rare for pitchers but there are ways to transform. There are guys like Ryan Vogelsong who learn a new offering, or Rich Hill who completely change their pitch selection, or Bartolo Colon who traded his fast metabolism for an ability to defy father time. How would Hahn overhaul his pitching style?

The obvious place to look is his mechanics, which seem to inhibit command. He throws from a high release point with limited extension, giving him more room for error. That high release point is part of his sinker, a truly good pitch if he can command it, but also plays into him missing spots from getting under the ball.

It’s kind of uncharted territory, but the first ships to sail into those waters on the other side of the ball have been wildly successful. There’s little to lose at this point, and if the A’s want to exceed expectations with their low payroll then they need to continue to innovate. Hahn has all the potential in the world, and whether the A’s make a minor tweak, move him to the pen, or completely overhaul him as a starter, it’s imperative they find value in his live arm.