Ground balls are supposed to lead to easy outs. When you see a routine grounder hit to shortstop, you expect an out. There’s usually no feeling that the play could go wrong. You get ready to write “6-3” in your scorebook, even before the play is finished. There’s a reason they call it “routine”.
That wasn’t the case with Alen Hanson early in the season. Hanson’s defense at the start of the year was horrible. The shortstop started the year with ten errors in his first ten games. There were several plays that could have been ruled errors, but where Hanson got the home town treatment. But the frustrating thing about these errors were that they didn’t come on somewhat difficult plays. They came on routine plays. The ball would be hit to Hanson, he’d have plenty of time to make a play, and he’d throw wild to first. Or he’d set up ready to field the ball, and would boot the grounder.
There were moments where you held your breath on every routine grounder. The speed of the ground ball to short gave you just enough time to debate whether Hanson could commit an error. “No way he commits an error on this. There’s just no possible way.” Then you pause. “But I wouldn’t be surprised if he somehow does.” Then the throw. Wild, even though there was plenty of time to get the runner.
At times it was painful to watch. It wasn’t an issue where you thought “maybe he’d be better off at second base”. It was an issue where you thought “there’s no infield position he can play if he’s doing this”. Bottom line, it seemed like a classic case of Steve Sax syndrome.
Hanson was benched for several games after a three error game on April 14th. He was benched to clear his head, as the error count was not only adding up, but was also affecting his hitting. At the time he had a .191/.224/.255 line in 47 at-bats.
He came back on April 18th. That same day Pirates infield coordinator Gary Green came to Bradenton for a week to work with all of the infielders. Naturally this would present a good time to work with Hanson on his issues. That’s what they did. Each day that week Hanson worked on the short field beyond the outfield wall with Green and Marauders manager Frank Kremblas. Pirates Director of Minor League Operations Larry Broadway was also in attendance on some days, overseeing the fielding practice.
The purpose was to get Hanson focusing on his mechanics again. He needed to focus on funneling the ball to his body, and shortening his arm, which would prevent the wild throws. There was also a focus on Hanson being aggressive on the field, especially with the routine plays. Some of the errors on those routine plays came as a result of weak throws. It’s not that Hanson was necessarily slacking on the field, but it looked like he wasn’t throwing the ball at 100 percent on the routine grounders. He’d make good throws on the close and difficult plays, but would take a lot off on the easy throws. Hanson already has a fringy arm which is enough to stick at shortstop. By taking anything off the throws, he turns a lot of routine plays into unnecessarily close plays at first.
In the week working with Green, Hanson had some errors, but only three in his next six games. He also showed some positive signs, looking much better on the field. It wasn’t something that you wanted to give a lot of praise to, since he was just making the routine plays with the ease that you’d expect from a routine play. But considering how he set the bar so low early in the season by struggling with anything routine, it was worthy of recognition that he was at least making the plays he should be making.
Since April 23rd, Hanson has only made one error. That came last week, and wasn’t a fielding error. Hanson retrieved a relay from center field with a runner advancing to third. He had no shot of throwing out the runner, but rushed the throw anyways, instead of holding the ball. The ball got past the third baseman, went into the dugout and allowed a run to score. That was a case where he was probably too aggressive.
As for his fielding, it has been considerably better since the Pirates made that change. I thought about writing about Hanson after Green left town, but I wanted to wait and see how the defense held up. That error from Friday’s game was the only error he’s had in the last 23 games, and it wasn’t a fielding error. He’s had three fielding related errors in 29 games since taking a break and working with Green. His offense is also doing better, with a .297/.363/.405 line in 111 at-bats since being benched.
I noticed something the other day. Now when there’s a routine grounder hit to short, I hardly notice. I go to write “6-3” in the scorebook, and don’t even consider the possibility that the routine play could somehow be missed. That’s the way it should be, and it speaks to the complete 180 that Hanson has done from his rough start early in the season.