An almost exclusive reliance on his fastball has turned Joel Hanrahan of the Pittsburgh Pirates from a middling relief pitcher with a penchant for walking batters into a viable candidate to play in his first All-Star Game.
Named the Pirates' closer after a spring training competition with 2010 All-Star Evan Meek, Hanrahan has 23 saves, tied for the second-highest total in the majors and three more than his career total entering the season. His 1.24 ERA is tied for fifth-best in the majors among relief pitchers.
Hanrahan, who entered the season with a career 4.12 ERA, threw his slider 13 percent of the time in 2010 when he was behind in the count. He faced 294 batters last season and fell behind in the count 58 times. In those situations, hitters posted a .603 on-base percentage and ended up walking 24.1 percent of the time. This season, throwing his fastball 100 percent of the time when he’s behind, Hanrahan is limiting hitters to a .382 OBP and walks on only 11.8 percent of those at-bats.
Batters this season are putting more balls into play -- 54 percent of the time on hitters’ counts compared to 35 percent last year. That's meant fewer walks, and the Pirates' defense has shown a turnaround almost as remarkable as Hanrahan’s.
Last season, he had an abysmal .439 batting average against him on balls put in play when he was behind in the count, far above the league average of .305. This season, Hanrahan is limiting opponents to .276 in those situations. (The league average through Tuesday is .301.)
The Pirates have their most reliable bullpen option in nearly a decade, and has Hanrahan in position to threaten the club's single-season record of 46 saves set by Mike Williams in 2002.