Happy Hanson Day: Pirates Prospect Receives the Call

With Starling Marte away on paternity leave, the Pittsburgh Pirates have called up prospect Alen Hanson from the minor leagues. Hanson was off to a fine start in Triple-A, slashing .288/.309/.398 with seven steals. He spent all of last season at the Triple-A level, too, and hit similarly well: .263/.313/.387 with 35 steals. Throw in that he’s primarily a middle infielder, and it’s clear Hanson had little left to prove in the minors.

If it feels like Hanson’s been on the prospect radar for ages, it’s because he has. Originally signed out of the Dominican way back in 2009, he began gracing top-100 lists after a .309/.381/.528 showing in Low-A back in 2012. Despite his lengthy minor-league tenure, Hanson still has youth on his side. He’ll will play the entire 2016 season as a 23-year-old.

Offensively, Hanson’s tools are underwhelming: neither his hit tool nor his power tool project to be above-average according to erstwhile lead prospect analyst Dan Farnsworth. But he’s made the most of his tools in the high minors. With strikeout rates below 20%, and ISOs well above .100, he’s managed to record above-average batting lines at the higher levels. He doesn’t make tons of contact or hit the ball out of the park very often, but does enough of each to suggest he’ll be able to contend with big-league pitching.

Hanson’s carrying tool is his plus speed, which has allowed him to rack up 42 steals since he arrived in Triple-A last year. All that speed obviously comes in handy on the base paths, but it also suggests he has the athleticism to provide value on the defensive side. The minor-league defensive data available to us suggest this is the case. In his first full season at second base last year, Baseball Prospectus’ minor-league FRAA clocked him at 11 runs above average.

Hanson’s logged most of his games in the middle infield, but the Pirates have given him some reps at third base and left field lately in an apparent effort to increase his defensive flexibility. Of particular note, he’s started 10 games in left field over the past couple of weeks. So Hanson might simply take Marte’s spot on the diamond. Based on his minor-league track record, Hanson looks like he could be an everyday second baseman. But seeing how he’s blocked by Josh Harrison, the Pirates are wise to diversify his defensive skill set a bit.

As I mentioned previously, Hanson has some prospect pedigree. He cracked Baseball America’s top-100 list back in 2013 and stuck around for 2014 as well. The love from evaluators has dried up, however, as no major outlet ranked him within their top 100. 2080 Baseball was the high man on Hanson, slotting him at #106.

Humans have seemingly soured on the Doninican-born infielder, possibly due to reports on his lack of maturity, but KATOH remains on board. Heading into the year, my system pegged him for 7.4 WAR over the next six seasons, putting him 22nd on KATOH’s pre-season top 100. Middle infielders who run well and have succeeded offensively at Triple-A at age-22 don’t grow on trees.

To put some faces to Hanson’s statistical profile, let’s go ahead and generate some statistical comps for the switch-hitting Dominican. I calculated the Mahalanobis Distance between Hanson’s Triple-A numbers since the start of 2015 and every Triple-A season from a second baseman since 1990 in which a hitter recorded at least 400 plate appearances. In the table below, you’ll find the 10 most similar seasons, ranked from most to least similar.

Alen Hanson’s Mahalanobis Comps
Rank Name Proj. WAR Actual WAR
1 Adam Kennedy 6.6 14.7
2 Quilvio Veras 6.2 11.4
3 Joe Thurston 8.5 0.0
4 Eric Owens 5.7 2.5
5 Amaury Garcia 5.0 0.0
6 Wilton Guerrero 7.7 0.5
7 Eric Patterson 4.2 0.3
8 Luis Castillo 6.2 17.4
9 Jose Ortiz 7.4 0.3
10 Ronnie Belliard 6.0 10.7

There’s little to suggest Hanson isn’t ready for the big leagues, but this initial callup may be short-lived. The Pirates needed a body to fill in for Marte, and there’s a pretty good chance Hanson is sent back down as soon as Marte re-joins the team. regardless, Hanson has little left to prove in the minors, and figures to be back sooner rather than later. After years in the Pirates’ farm system, he’s finally ready to help the big club. And given his newfound positional flexibility, one could easily envision him slotting in as a utility player very soon. Perhaps he’ll ultimately find a niche as a super-utility guy who plays regularly — like Ben Zobrist did with the Rays for all those years. Hanson may not have the flashy tools or flashy upside. But he’s a 23-year-old with speed and defensive value who’s held his own against Triple-A pitching. There are a lot of ways a player like that can provide value, both now and in the future.

Chris works in economic development by day, but spends most of his nights thinking about baseball. He writes for Pinstripe Pundits, FanGraphs and The Hardball Times. He's also on the twitter machine: @_chris_mitchell None of the views expressed in his articles reflect those of his daytime employer.

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Hanson once had much higher expectations in our system 2-3 years ago he was seen as this breakout prospect emerging in many industry Top 100 lists. He’s lost a bit of that shine. Part of it was because his very flawed defense, but no doubt he was once viewed as a staple of our future in the middle infield who would succeed Neil Walker when he left. That doesn’t look to be the case anymore, especially with Josh Harrison emerging. That said, I still think he can be a very good super utility guy, much in the vein of Harrison. With his recently added ability to play the corner outfield, he has the ability to now play second, third, right, and left.