Can Jesse Hahn Get His Groove Back?

You might have forgotten about Jesse Hahn, but I assure you he is alive and well and competing for a spot in the Oakland rotation this spring.

Elbow issues cut his 2015 season short, and a shoulder strain and performance inconsistency limited him to 46 innings with the A’s last season when he posted a 5.63 FIP and an ugly 2% K-BB% mark. It was a lost year for Hahn.

But Hahn was recently one of the more intriguing arms in the sport.

He posted a 3.40 FIP for the Padres in 2014 before being traded for Derek Norris. In Oakland in 2015, Hahn posted a 3.51 FIP.

Jeff Sullivan wrote last spring that Hahn’s curveball is similar to Adam Wainwright’s. And in Hahn’s small sample of work in 2016, the curveball again featured some of the greatest movement among starting pitchers, ranking 14th in the sport in vertical movement (-8.9 inches), according to Baseball Prospectus PITCHf/x leaderboards. It was in line with his 2015 movement (-8.3).

When he was on the mound last season, the pitch still had some magic:

What was interesting about Hahn’s injury-shortened 2016 season is when he was on the mound, his two-seamer made a 2 mph jump from 91.9 mph in 2015 to 93.9 mph. In 2014, the pitch averaged 90.5 mph.

While it was a small sample of work in 2016, Hahn’s two-seam featured the 12th greatest velocity in the sport – residing between Carlos Martinez and Danny Duffy – and it ranked in the top 50 among all starting pitchers who had thrown at least 200 pitches in horizontal (49th) and vertical (44th) movement. The pitch produced 4.11 ground balls for every fly ball, ranking 36th among starter pitchers, though it generated just a 9.9% swinging strike rate.

The velocity increase was the product of a philosophy change and change in arm slot as Athletics Nation noted, and it might have cost him some movement.

Hahn’s 2015 sinker produced a 4.39 GB/FB ratio and a 15.14% whiff per swing rate.

While Hahn lost a half inch of horizontal movement last season, -8.95 to -8.46 inches, more concerning was his loss of command as his walk percentage rose from 6.2% to 9.4%. Consider his fastball location versus lefties in 2016 versus 2015 via these heat maps from Baseball Savant:



Hahn was better able to locate his fastball as you can see in the above charts and perhaps a slight change of his arm slot and slightly lesser velocity will help.

We’ll see where the velocity, movement and location is this this spring, but 2016 tells us Hahn has a well above average arm, capable of producing well above average velocity and spin rates. It’s raw talent to build upon.

In small samples, Hahn has demonstrated he can strike out batters at an above league-average rate as he did in San Diego in 2014. He’s shown average or better ground ball and walk rates. And in 2016, he demonstrated his curveball still had its rare shape and movement, and he could produce elite-level velocity (though he might be better powering down a bit).

He also learned to deal with something he had never really endured after a successful (per inning) minor league and major league carer leading into last season: failure.

Said Hahn to CSN Bay Area last week:

“I think that’s the first time I’ve honestly ever really struggled in my career,” Hahn said of 2016. “I don’t think I was used to it. I was approaching it the wrong way. I’d struggle and come back trying to be more aggressive, which led to me just not pitching like myself. This year, it’s a completely different approach. Just keep my mind clear and focus on the positives.”

Hahn must prove he can stay on a mound and pitch effectively. But in 2016 his stuff remained intact when he did pitch, which makes him intriguing, and the A’s rotation a little more interesting.

Ryan Pollack wrote earlier this week about why we should be optimistic about another A’s pitcher, Sean Manaea, this season. ZiPS is optimistic that Sonny Gray can bounce back. Eno Sarris predicted Jharel Cotton will win AL ROY honors in his bold predictions piece Tuesday. Kendall Graveman is also forecasted to be a quality back-to-mid rotation option.

The AL West is perhaps the most unpredictable division in baseball entering 2017.

According to FanGraphs’ projected standings, the Astros have the second-fewest projected wins among division favorites (91). The Mariners, Rangers and Angels are projected at 83 wins with the A’s at 79. It could be a competitive, parity-strewn division, and the AL wild card race figures to be crowded, too.

This is the time of year where most teams have a conceivable path to the second wild card, where most teams and fan bases can squint and find reason to hope. And when examining the A’s that hope begins with a starting rotation that contains some upside and reasons to dream, including that of a Jesse Hahn staying healthy and returning to form.

A Cleveland native, FanGraphs writer Travis Sawchik is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, Big Data Baseball. He also contributes to The Athletic Cleveland, and has written for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Sawchik.

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5 years ago

He needs to talk to someone who has done it before…