For now, Padres’ Hahn succeeds giving ’em the old 1-2
In order to get through the lineup multiple times, a starting pitcher generally needs to have more than two pitches. The list of starters with only one non-fastball is short.
So far, new Padres pitching phenom Jesse Hahn belongs on that list, as he’s thrown his fastball or curve almost 94 percent of the time this year. But there’s also a good chance that Hahn can be more than just the sum of those two pitches, as good as they might be.
For one, the curveball is a pretty good place to start. Particularly Hahn’s sort of curveball.
"I really try to get on top of it and pull it down. I think it drops a good bit," Hahn told me before an early July game against the Reds. "I think it has a lot of depth."
Even if he’s modest, he’s right — only seven qualified curveballs in the game drop more than Hahn’s at 8.8 inches. That makes it a "roundhouse curve," which has a reverse platoon split. In other words, he has a weapon against lefties in that breaking pitch.
Hahn pulls those seams down and gets top-10 drop on his curve.
In the early going, Hahn is getting batters to swing at the curve. "I’ll throw it in fastball counts when guys are sitting fastball — then they see the curve, and I think they just miss it," he said.
On 0-0 and 2-1 counts, pitchers across baseball throw fastballs 74 percent of the time and curves 9 percent of the time. Hahn has thrown his curve 24 percent of the time in those counts. That’s a function of his arsenal as much as it is his strategy, but it has led to more swings than usual.
"I have confidence in throwing it for strikes," Hahn said of his curve.
Even if batters don’t swing, Hahn is fine with throwing the curve often.
"I just try to throw it down in the zone for a strike," he said. "Don’t swing at it, it’s a strike; that’s just helping me out. I can keep it down in the zone. I’m fine with that."
Hahn walked just over 7 percent of the batters he faced in the minor leagues, which is better than the major league number (8 percent most years). Even though he’s slightly worse than league average this year, the average 24-year-old would expect to improve his walk rate for another three or four seasons at least. Let’s say Hahn has good command.
A simple grip, but Hahn’s gets more movement than most two-seamers.
Hahn’s four-seam fastball sits around 92. That’s not plus-plus velocity, but starters are averaging closer to 91 this year. And with 10 inches of horizontal break, Hahn is sporting a sinker that has two inches more break than average.
But Hahn is far from fully formed. He stopped throwing his "violent" slider after a bout with Tommy John surgery back in the day, but he still throws a slider. In order to preserve his arm better, he throws it like a "slow cutter" now — "I don’t really go over the side much, I really stay on top of that one. … It’s all in the fingertips."
Hahn’s "slow cutter" slider grip.
It’s not a finished pitch yet, maybe.
"For me, it’s just to show something different and throw it for a strike," Hahn said. "It’s a get-me-over pitch."
Hahn has only thrown 13 of them this year, but it does have the potential to add a third velocity range to his offerings. At 80 to 84, it would sit right between his 92-mph fastball and his 74-mph curve. And then there’s the change-up.
"I’ve been working on my change a lot recently," Hahn said. "It is a good pitch, and I just need to throw it more and get comfortable with it and get more confidence with it."
It’s tough to evaluate change-ups based on shape and speed, but if Hahn’s version doesn’t have the velocity separation you’d like for whiffs, it might have the movement you’d like. It breaks 2.5 more inches vertically than your average change and has 1.5 more inches horizontal movement.
Is Hahn’s change going to grow into something he has more confidence in?
His whiff rate on the pitch — 15 percent — would be above average, but he’s only thrown 26 so far, and so we’re talking about four whiffs. Still, the change up might be something to build on.
"Seeing success with it out there — if I throw it and I get some whiffs and some ground balls and some pop-ups, then I’ll gain more confidence with it and throw it more," Hahn said. "Sometimes I get caught up throwing the fastball and curveball."
But that’s just how pitchers get to the big leagues, too.
"Out there, you’re just battling, so whatever your strengths are, that’s what you want to automatically go to."
So right now, Hahn is throwing the two pitches that make him special, and the two others that have a little promise will take some time. That might be OK — with his combination of command, velocity and curve, Hahn might have what it takes to succeed without them.