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2012 Player Preview: Jack Hannahan

As we count down the days until the start of the season, we’re profiling every player who is likely to be on the Opening Day roster and how he could impact the team. Today, we turn our attention to the Tribe’s likely starting third baseman: Jack Hannahan.

Background: Drafted by the Tigers out of the University of Minnesota in the third round of the 2001 draft, Hannahan, who turns 32 this weekend, appeared in just three MLB games for Detroit before being dealt to Oakland in 2007. He made a name for himself as a fantastic fielder but didn’t show any offensive prowess to speak of. He was traded twice more (to Seattle, then to Boston) before the Red Sox released him in 2010. He signed a minor-league deal with the Indians last year and won a job as the starting third baseman.

Last year: 2011 was a career year for Hannahan, as he hit .250 with 8 home runs, 40 RBI, and 38 runs scored. Thanks to solid plate discipline (10.4 percent) he got on base at an above-average .331 clip, and he even showed some moderate power (.138 ISO). More importantly, he was spectacular in the field, with a 13.6 UZR/150 and a 16.8 FRAA in just 110 games. Buoyed by his fantastic glove, FanGraphs put his worth at 2.0 wins above replacement, while Baseball-Reference had him at 2.2 WAR and Baseball Prospectus pegged him at 3.1 WARP.

Key factor: Avoiding regression. According to wRC+, Hannahan was exactly a league-average hitter (100) in 2011—a huge step up from his previous career 78 wRC+. There’s no one part of his game that we can point to as the driving force behind his sudden breakout—his strikeout rate, BABIP, and ISO all improved, suggesting that he was generally just a better hitter—so it’s just a question of continuing to play at that same level.

Combine a league-average bat with Hannahan’s glove and you’ve got a great third baseman. If he goes back to hitting like Luis Valbuena, people will get antsy for Lonnie Chisenhall.

2012 projections: Courtesy of FanGraphs. (*—estimated with the Simple WAR Calculator)

Bill James is optimistic (essentially he sees Hannahan repeating 2011 but with a little less power), ZIPS is pessimistic (though it produces the highest WAR projection because it predicts he’ll get more playing time than the other three do), and RotoChamp and Steamer are right in the middle. The takeaway: he’ll come back down to earth a little bit, but he won’t be an easy out.

Best-case scenario: The real everything-goes-right situation is one in which Lonnie Chisenhall (who has a much higher ceiling) shows that he’s worked out his plate discipline problems and is ready to usurp Hannahan’s position. Short of that, the dream scenario—anticlimactic as it sounds—would really just be one in which Hannahan keeps up his pace from 2011, maybe with a little higher walk rate or ISO.

Worst-case scenario: It turns out 2011 was a fluke. The Indians either start the season with a hole in their lineup or give the job to an unready Chisenhall. Hannahan is reduced to being a bench player and a late-game defensive replacement, Chisenhall loses the chance to work on his approach in Triple-A, and Tribe pitchers don’t get the enormous benefit of having Hannahan’s glove behind them.

Most likely scenario: Some might point to the lack of a single factor that led to Hannahan’s improvement as a bad thing, but I think it makes him a safer bet for 2012 because regression in one area won’t make him unravel. I wouldn’t bet on him repeating 2011—though he might—but I’ll gladly take the over on the mean projections.

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