Tommy Hanson, a former starting pitcher for the Braves and Angels, died Monday night in Atlanta at the age of 29. Hospitalized on Sunday morning with difficulty breathing, Hanson fell into a coma and was transferred to Piedmont Hospital with what was described as catastrophic organ failure. The exact cause of his death has not been made public. Once one of the top pitching prospects in the game, Hanson finished third in the NL Rookie of the Year voting in 2009 and was the Braves’ No. 2 starter the next year, when Atlanta won the National League wild-card, but his career, and it seems his life, took a sharp downward turn thereafter.
Born in Tulsa, Okla. on Aug. 28, 1986, Hanson moved to southern California in early childhood, where he began his lifelong pursuit of baseball. Hanson was not drafted out of high school, but after just one year at Riverside Community College, the Braves took the 6'6" righty in the 22nd round of the 2005 draft as a draft-and-follow pick. Draft-and-follow, a rule that was in place from 1987 through 2005, allowed teams to draft players in junior or community colleges and then observe them through another school year before being forced to make a decision about signing them no later than one week before the following year’s draft. The Braves liked what they saw from Hanson in his sophomore year at Riverside, as well as in the West Coast League, an independent summer league for college players, and signed him in May 2006 with a $325,000 bonus.
Hanson quickly established himself as a serious prospect. In his first two professional seasons, he struck out 210 batters in 184 2/3 innings. By 2008, just his second year in full-season ball, he was excelling in Double A, throwing a 14-strikeout no-hitter for the Mississippi Braves in June of that year. That fall he dominated the hitting-friendly and prospect-heavy Arizona Fall League, becoming the first pitcher to win the league’s MVP award. The following February, Baseball America named Hanson—who was armed with a mid-90s fastball, a slider, curve and changeup—the fourth-best prospect in baseball, one spot ahead of fellow Atlanta prospect Jason Heyward.
Hanson made his major league debut on June 7, 2009, and while he was roughed up by the Brewers in that start, allowing six earned runs in six innings, he went 4–0 with a 0.90 ERA in his next five turns. He finished his first major league season with a 2.89 ERA (143 ERA+) in 127 2/3 innings, finishing behind the Marlins’ Chris Coghlan and the Phillies’ J.A. Happ in the NL Rookie of the Year voting. Hanson appeared to be well on his way to establishing himself as a stalwart in Atlanta's rotation the following year. Still just 23, he threw 202 2/3 innings over 34 starts, posting a higher ERA but a lower Fielding Independent Pitching mark, and he emerged as second only to veteran ace Tim Hudson in the rotation of a Braves team that won 91 games and the NL wild-card. Atlanta lost the Division Series to the Giants in four games, with Hanson giving up four runs in just four innings in his Game 3 start. However, with all of the talent the Braves' organization was producing at that time—Hanson, Heyward, Brandon Beachy, Freddie Freeman, Jair Jurrjens, Craig Kimbrel, Brian McCann, Kris Medlen, Mike Minor, Martin Prado and Jonny Venters were all in the majors and 26 or younger that season—it was assumed that that would be just the first of many playoff appearances for Hanson and Atlanta. As it turned out, those Braves would return to the playoffs two more times, but without Hanson.
Hanson’s baseball problems began in 2011. His strikeout rate spiked to 9.8 per nine that year (up from 7.7 in '10) and he was generally effective, though less so than in his first two seasons. But he experienced a drop in velocity, missed two weeks in June and saw his season come to an end in early August due to shoulder problems. That off-season, he reworked his delivery in an attempt to protect his shoulder, eliminating a pause in his arm motion to try to improve the transfer of energy from his body to his arm; while he did manage to make 31 starts despite a brief disabled list stay for a strained back in early August, his velocity and effectiveness continued to decline. With Hanson eligible for arbitration for the first time after the 2012 season, the Braves traded him to the Angels in November for reliever Jordan Walden.
The Angels gave Hanson $3.725 million for the 2013 season, and he turned in a quality start in two of his first three outings, but the death that April of his 24-year-old step-brother from undisclosed causes derailed his season. After realizing that six days of bereavement leave was not nearly enough to process such a painful and unexpected loss, Hanson took three weeks away from the team in May, and it’s impossible to say to what degree his brother’s death factored into his poor performance over the remainder of the season. Hanson turned in just one more quality start after returning to the team in late May, missed a month at mid-season due to a forearm strain, was optioned to Triple A in early August and made just two more major league appearances after that, both in relief in late September.
Hanson was non-tendered that December, then signed with the Rangers in 2014 but was cut at the end of spring training and posted a 6.16 ERA in 10 starts with the White Sox’ Triple A affiliate before suffering an undisclosed season-ending injury in mid-June. A free agent again last winter, he didn’t catch on with another team until May of this year, when he signed a minor league deal with the Giants. Hanson didn’t fare much better with Triple A Sacramento, but he did stay healthy and went 3–0 with a 1.52 ERA in his final four starts.
It’s unlikely that those final outings would have been the start of a comeback for Hanson, who seemed closer to the end of his baseball career than the major leagues as the 2015 season drew to a close. Unfortunately, we’ll never know for sure. Regardless, while one might be tempted to describe Tommy Hanson’s baseball career as short and tragic, doing so seems awfully inappropriate given the degree to which his life more accurately fits that description.