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Wednesday, June 8, 2011
Protecting Hanson working well

By Christina Kahrl

For Tommy Hanson, winning in the big leagues might have seemed somewhat easy at the start of his career. When he came up as a 22-year-old rookie in June 2009, the highly touted prospect delivered on his promise by collecting 11 wins in his first 21 starts, against just four losses. He collected his first big league victory in his second start in what you might term a “cheap” win, in that he didn’t get through six innings, getting away with just two runs allowed while giving up 14 baserunners in 5 2/3 innings. The team's bullpen and offense picked him up, and the Braves beat the Orioles 7-2.

A win’s a win, but almost two years later Hanson’s victory over the Marlins on Tuesday serves as a reminder that there has been nothing cheap about Hanson’s victories since that rookie campaign. Hanson’s 17-15 record in 2010-2011 might make it seem as though he’s merely been a placeholder in the Braves’ rotation, but nothing could be further from the truth. Marlins rookie Brad Hand threw an excellent game in his debut, his lone mistake an inside fastball that Alex Gonzalez got around on and jacked into the left-field seats to lead off the fourth inning. As it turned out, that would be the only run the Braves needed.

Hanson pitched six shutout innings to get his seventh win of the season, that in his seventh quality start. Hanson has won all seven -- simply put, anything less than a quality start, and Hanson has nothing to show for it so far. That may sound like a hard circumstance, but he has been here before: Hanson got his first eight wins in his first eight quality starts in 2010. It’s what came after that last season which has made it seem as though Hanson has been anything less than outstanding. After going eight-for-eight, Hanson had to settle for one win, three losses and seven no-decisions in his final 11 quality starts.

In a microcosm, Hanson’s quality spin Tuesday provided the reasons why. It goes back to the how and why of his first win -- like any well-managed young pitcher, he gets pulled before his pitch counts pile up too far beyond 100. In 2009, when Hanson was 22, he pitched into the seventh inning or later just 10 times in 21 starts. In 2010, he got into the seventh or later just 14 times in 34 starts. This year, in his age 24 season, he’s done so in just four of his first 13 starts.

That isn’t about a quick hook, not from Bobby Cox or now from Fredi Gonzalez. Instead, that’s the nature of careful management of a quality arm as he matures. In the meantime, more often than not, Hanson is pitching two-thirds of the game or less -- which makes generating wins a tough proposition without great run support (like he got in his first win and first season), as well as great relief help.

This year he’s as carefully managed as ever, and Hanson’s getting the worst run support of his brief career. After Tuesday’s 1-0 win, a quick envelope calculation says that he’s getting just 3.7 runs of support per 27 outs, against the 5.0 he got as a rookie or the 4.2 he received last season. But he is getting a boost from the other unit that can turn a good start from Hanson into a win in the standings: the Braves’ bullpen.

Hanson has a power trio to make his good work stand up: lefties Eric O’Flaherty and Jonny Venters, and closer Craig Kimbrel, a righty. O’Flaherty, Venters and Kimbrel have provided the Braves’ game-winning script for the final three frames this season, a major change from last year; only Venters is reprising anything like the role he had on Cox’s watch.

All three relievers rank among the league leaders in appearances, and all three are almost entirely reserved for pitching with the lead. Instead of strictly situational roles defined by pursuing platoon advantages, Gonzalez’s bullpen has its roles defined by the score: If the Braves lead after six, the trio pitches. It’s the older pitchers who are assigned the less significant roles -- 30-somethings Scott Linebrink and George Sherrill generally pitch when the Braves are down by a little, and veteran Cristhian Martinez when they’re down by a lot.

Combined, the three older men have pitched to protect a lead just nine times in 63 appearances, and 11 tie games. The kids? They’ve been entrusted with 56 leads and 22 ties, and with a combined 1.61 runs allowed per nine while stranding 18 of 23 inherited runners, they’re making those leads stand up as wins -- including Hanson’s.

PHOTO OF THE DAY
Carlos Gomez
Carlos Gomez is just hanging out. He got the ball, but will he ever come down? Please hold.
Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.