INDIANAPOLIS – The 2016 campaign has gotten off to a different start than Alen Hanson is accustomed to. After slow starts in recent years, Hanson got off to a hot start this year, hitting .328 in April with an .805 OPS, doing a nice job of building on the momentum started last year in Indianapolis.
Hanson, a traditional slow starter to seasons, also had a nice Spring (7-for-21 with a double) in attempting to win a spot on the big league roster. The Pirates were looking at him to replace Jung-ho Kang early in the season, but changed their direction with the David Freese signing. That shifted Hanson’s focus to Indianapolis.
In the first month, Hanson had a double, a home run, and two triples, while also showing strong rangy defense at second base, a fairly new position for the natural shortstop.
While the first eight games in May have not been as kind to Hanson (.179/.195/.308), he has also been putting in some work in left field to showcase some versatility that the Pirates clearly value. He has started in left in his last six games, after just one start there and three starts away from second base prior to May 6th. In the first two games, Hanson did not have anything of note hit in his direction, but on Sunday, he made a couple of plays on the run that show that he could be able to successfully spend some time at the position.
Another place where Hanson is seeing success is from the right side of the plate. Against left-handed pitching, Hanson is hitting .351 with a .828 OPS. Indianapolis hitting coach Butch Wynegar is pleased with what he sees from the approach, and some recent alterations.
“His right-handed swing has gotten a lot better,” Wynegar said. “It was something that we tried to work on last year quite a bit, but it never really came together. I saw him in the spring and he went to a little bit of a leg kick right-handed. I asked him about it and told him that I really like it. His biggest thing is staying on his legs and not getting on his front side and just waving the bat with his hands. That’s when he gets to doing left-handed at times. Right handed, he’s good right now.”
The stats also show that the left-handed may be a bit lagging as well. While he is hitting .232 from the left side, Hanson has also struck out 20 times in 69 at bats from the left side, which is up from his normal strikeout rate. He has also walked just three times from that side.
“Left-handed, it is just about staying on his legs and working from a strong back side,” Wynegar said. “When he works too forward, he’s only got his hands left. He’s got good hands, but there is nothing behind the ball to really drive it. Then, sometimes, we will do the opposite and stay back on the ball too much, spin off the ball, and try to pull it.”
When Hanson is able to stay back, the solid contact follows, Wynegar points out from a recent game in Durham.
“When he is solid on his legs, and works behind the ball, which he did [on a recent road trip], I go ‘wow,’” Wynegar said. “When he got back to the dugout, I told him he could be so good if he just stuck to what he did there. He hit a missile back up the middle to left-center left-handed.”
Hanson was also able to do this on a home run on Monday night in the ninth inning. He stayed behind the ball and drove it out of the ballpark over the right field fence.
Finally, the speed tool is there as well. Not just in the field, but also on the base paths, as Hanson is 6-for-9 in stolen base attempts this season. This is also nothing new, as Hanson is a career 175-for-250 base stealer, or 70 percent, in his minor league career.
Hanson just turned 23 in October and already has 632 plate appearances at Triple-A. He has the youth, speed, and athleticism to be a big league difference maker. The last obstacle is just putting it all together consistently and he has the ability to become a regular in Pittsburgh.
“There is no doubt that he could be a good hitter, it is just trying to get him consistent and sharpening him up,” Wynegar said.
With the added work in left field, it could be possible for Hanson to break into the big leagues as a super utility player, with the ability to play second, third, shortstop in a pinch, and left field. He will need to show more consistency at the plate for that to happen. Fortunately, he’s showing improvements from the side of the plate where he’s struggled in the past (the right side), and there’s nothing about his history that should bring up concern about his ability to hit from the left side.