PITTSBURGH – This September has been Alen Hanson’s first extended opportunity in the major leagues, but you would have to look carefully to see evidence of that in the box scores.
Since being recalled on August 30, Hanson has accrued a total of 17 plate appearances over 13 games, and has only one start. He has been used as a pinch runner in five other games, stealing no bases and getting caught on one attempt.
His .267/.353/.333 line in that span is far from embarrassing, as are his 11.8% walk rate and 5.9% strikeout rate. Also consider that in the two games this month in which he had multiple plate appearances, Hanson is a combined 3-for-5 with two walks (one intentional).
It would be unnecessarily harsh to say that Hanson is not meeting expectations at the plate. With the Pirates falling out of the Wild Card chase, and given recent injury concerns, it would seem to have been a good time to get Hanson at least a few more opportunities to test the major league waters, in a way similar to how Adam Frazier has been utilized since his promotion.
But as we know, Hanson has been relegated almost exclusively to pinch-hitting opportunities, which have rarely been followed by an opportunity to remain in the game defensively.
Hanson doesn’t seem fazed by the adjustment, but did admit that it is a different situation than his usual routine as he was coming up through the minor league system.
“Mentally and physically, it can be a little bit challenging,” Hanson said on Sunday through team interpreter Mike Gonzalez. “But I’m just adjusting now, and getting familiar with it, being someone that was full-time and now comes in once in a while.
“Your body is a little cold. We do routines throughout the game to try and keep ourselves warmed up and prepared for whenever the team needs us. But right now, the focus is whenever the team needs me, I’m ready, and I’m equipped, and I’m prepared.”
His last appearance was as a pinch hitter on Monday night in a slaughter the Cubs eventually won by a score of 12-2. Hanson replaced Zach Phillips in the bottom of the fifth inning with the score already 5-0, and grounded the first pitch right to first baseman Anthony Rizzo. He was replaced by Steven Brault to start the sixth inning.
Swiss Army Defender in Training
On Sunday, I asked Huntington whether the team had plans to utilize Hanson in a roving “super utility” role, as he was starting to be used in Indianapolis, and how he fits into the roster for the 2017 season with Adam Frazier competing for a similar role.
“As we look at Alen [in] the construct of our club as projected, [there is] the fact that he’s out of options, [and] the fact that he can do some things other guys can’t do in terms of the offensive impact: the base stealing and base running, his speed on the bases and in the field,” Huntington said.
“But as we sit here today, the best fit for the club would be to bounce around the field [and] be a threat off the bench. As we’ve seen again and again, the defensive versatility has been a huge advantage for us this year. It’ll be an interesting process at the end of this year.”
Manager Clint Hurdle also confirmed on Saturday that the plan for the remainder of 2016 is for Hanson to be used off the bench as a pinch hitter, and in various defensive positions as needed.
In contrast to that stated plan, Hanson has only played second base in his brief opportunities to see the field, so it would seem that he now occupies the third position on the depth chart behind veteran Sean Rodriguez and the aforementioned Frazier.
Rodriguez has started most games at second base in Harrison’s absence, and Frazier has seen significant time both as a starter and a replacement, including a pinch-hitting opportunity in the ninth inning of last night’s 6-4 loss to Chicago after starting Monday’s game in left field.
Absent time in actual games to ply his defensive trades, Hanson continues to practice at different positions before games in preparation for those eventual opportunities.
“Ever since I came [to Pittsburgh], they’ve been focusing me more on second base,” said Hanson, “but during [infield and outfield practice] or batting practice, they shift me around in the outfield and around in the infield as well, just so I can get reps at different positions.”
Hanson reiterated that he feels most comfortable at second base, but he does not see a substantial challenge in developing versatility at multiple defensive positions. Having successful role models to follow in Rodriguez and Josh Harrison (among others) has helped show him that he can be a key contributor in that capacity.
“It’s definitely motivating,” said Hanson, “knowing that these were players that experienced the same thing as myself, being part-time players, or players that barely got any playing time, to now being full-time players. Having the production [that] they’ve had, it’s definitely motivating and inspiring. And it’s something that reminds me every day that I go out there, that it’s possible for me too.”
If Not Now, When?
As Tim discussed a couple weeks ago, there are good arguments for the Pirates to have been more aggressive about getting Hanson more opportunities at the plate and in the field, particularly with the recent injuries to Harrison, Polanco, and Starling Marte.
Given Hurdle’s preference for established players and sticking with the “hot hand,” Jung Ho Kang (220 wRC+ in September) and Rodriguez (166) were going to be in the lineup as long as they were healthy, and considering Frazier’s strong debut in the second half, that presumably leaves little room for Hanson.
It seems reasonable, then, to suspect that this is primarily a matter of paying one’s dues, as well as the Pirates’ preference to keep competing for a playoff spot until they had been officially eliminated. For better or worse, having those players get hot, or continue to stay hot, in what was technically a pennant race seems to have made it a fait accompli that Hanson would be the odd man out of the lineup. That seems to be changing now that the team is eliminated.
It certainly would have benefitted Hanson to have substantially more playing time, and it seems to indicate that at least for now, he has likely fallen behind Frazier in the team’s evaluation of their status as contributors for the 2017 season and beyond.
Given that Huntington mentioned the fact that Hanson is out of options, I would expect that he would be with the major league team when Spring Training ends, unless of course he happens to be traded in the meantime. With a presumably healthy Harrison and Frazier—and possibly Max Moroff—also in the mix, there will be plenty of roster decisions for the Pirates to sort out.
Though it certainly hasn’t been an active stretch for him in Pittsburgh, it’s clear that Hanson is grateful for the opportunity to be a September call-up, and he had a key takeaway from this experience to share.
“Never forgetting that I’m coming from being a part-time player, the struggles behind that, and the goal of becoming a full-time player,” Hanson said. “At the end of the day, being up here is a huge blessing. I’m surrounded by motivation and inspiration, so [I’ll] just continue working hard, [and] come out here next season fighting for that full-time position.
Alan Saunders contributed reporting to this article.