One of the biggest reasons that the Pittsburgh Pirates sit just 1.5 games back of first place in the N.L. Central standings is the dominance of Joel Hanrahan in the late innings. The 6-foot-4, 245 pound right-hander ranks in the top 10 among relievers in Wins Above Replacement, and he recently earned his first All-Star bid to boot.
Hanrahan was plenty dominant last season, too, but he's hammering hitters in a different way in 2011:
2010: 12.9 K/9, 3.4 BB/9, 47% ground ball rate, 2.62 Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP)
2011: 7.6 K/9, 1.8 BB/9, 55% ground ball rate, 2.21 FIP
The Bucs' stopper has sacrificed whiffs for fewer walks and more ground balls this year. A closer look at his pitch selection and location reveals that he's challenging batters like never before with a blistering fastball, and he's baiting hitters to chase his slider off the plate when he does snap off a breaking ball.
Hanrahan's fastball velocity has jumped from an already-sizzling 95.9 MPH in 2010 to 97.2 MPH in 2011. He has drastically increased his usage of the pitch, firing fastballs 85 percent of the time this year (61 percent in 2010). Chicago's Matt Thornton is the only reliever to throw his heat more frequently.
Hanrahan has often thrown those upper-90s fastballs in the strike zone. Fifty-four percent of his heaters have crossed the plate, compared to 51 percent last season. More fastballs, and more fastballs thrown in the zone -- that helps explain Hanrahan's pared-down walk rate. He's also getting ground balls 55 percent of the time with the pitch, up from 47 percent in 2010.
The other reason that Hanrahan has issued fewer free passes and generated more grounders is his slider. While he's not throwing the slider near as much, he's using the pitch much differently when he does decide to throw it. Check out the frequency of his pitch location with the mid-80s breaker in 2010 and 2011:
Hanrahan located about 46 percent of his sliders within the strike zone in 2010. That zone percentage has dropped to 32 percent this year. Happily, hitters just can't lay off the pitch: they're chasing 44 percent of Hanrahan's out-of-zone sliders. All of those hacks on out-of-zone sliders have led to a sharp uptick in ground balls hit, from 33 percent last year to 60 percent in 2011.
Joel Hanrahan's pitching approach this year is simple, yet devastating. He's forcing batters to take cuts at a fastball that flirts with the triple digits, with the result being weak contact. And he's burying sliders low and away to right-handers or in on the legs of lefties. Hanrahan, once a control-challenged farmhand for the Dodgers and Nationals, is now a focal reason why the Pirates are no longer pushovers.