What's Wrong With Joel Hanrahan?

July 22, 2012; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Pirates relief pitcher Joel Hanrahan (52) pitches against the Miami Marlins during the ninth inning at PNC Park. The Pittsburgh Pirates won 3-0. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-US PRESSWIRE

As announcers from both teams pointed out last night, the Pirates were 50-0 -- now 51-0 -- when leading after eight innings.

Given the way Joel Hanrahan has pitched this season, that's nothing short of a miracle.

Here's a quick recap of his outing last night, in case you missed it.

Pitch 1: 95-MPH fastball. Justin Maxwell tries to bunt for a hit. Pedro Alvarez narrowly throws him out with a great defensive play. One out.

Pitch 2: 95-MPH fastball. Inside, ball one.

Pitch 3: 95-MPH fastball. Outside, ball two.

Pitch 4: 95-MPH fastball. Low, ball three. Close pitch.

Pitch 5: 95-MPH fastball. At least a foot outside. Ball four, Scott Moore on first.

Pitch 6. 95-MPH fastball. In the dirt. Ball one.

Pitch 7: 95-MPH fastball. Strike one, hooray!

Pitch 8: 87-MPH slider in the dirt, swinging strike.

Pitch 9: 88-MPH slider. Ball bounces well in front of the plate, and Rod Barajas blocks it with his chest. Moore advances to second on the wild pitch.

Pitch 10: 88-MPH slider. J.D. Martinez check-swings and gets rung up. Strike three, two outs.

Pitch 11: 96-MPH fastball. Foul ball.

Pitch 12: 96-MPH fastball. Well inside, but Chris Johnson swings for some reason, and misses. Strike two.

Pitch 13: 87-MPH slider. Bounces well in front of the plate. Barajas blocks it with his face.

Pitch 14. 88-MPH slider. Bounces in front of the plate. Barajas blocks it with his chest.

Pitch 15: 97-MPH fastball. Way too high. 3-2.

Pitch 16: 97-MPH fastball. Foul ball.

Pitch 17: 96-MPH fastball right down the middle. Johnson hits a line-drive single past Clint Barmes to bring Moore home.

Pitch 18: 97-MPH fastball. Called strike one.

Pitch 19: 89-MPH fastball. Bounces way in front of the plate. Also inside. Barajas blocks it with his face. Johnson moves up to second on the wild pitch.

Pitch 20: 96-MPH fastball. Brian Bogusevic swings through it. Strike two.

Pitch 21: 97-MPH fastball. High, but Bogusevic swings through it. Strike three, game over.

* * *

Okay, some reactions to this, not all of them bad:

-P- Being a major-league catcher is hard, and Rod Barajas is a mensch. In 21 pitches, he blocked four with his body, including two with his face.

-P- Hanrahan still plainly has swing-and-miss stuff, which is a great sign. If I were a batter, I wouldn't want to face him.

-P- The 97-MPH fastballs are great to see, since there were outings a few weeks ago when Hanrahan wasn't topping 95. If Hanrahan can command his pitches when he's throwing that hard, he can probably get back to his 2011 form. Unfortunately, he isn't commanding them right now.

-P- Overall, this was a terrible outing. When all is said and done, he gets a save, which is all that matters to some people. In practice, he inherited a three-run lead and turned what should have been an easy win against a very weak lineup into a nail-biter.

Hanrahan has been doing this all year, using different methods -- sometimes he's wild, as he was last night. Sometimes he allows a home run: he allowed one homer in 2011, but has had five so far this year.

Those homers have been a function of Hanrahan's lack of command. On April 13, Barajas set up outside, and Hanrahan threw a knee-high 95-MPH fastball that went almost right down the middle, missing the target by about a foot. Aubrey Huff hit it over the right-field wall in San Francisco. On May 8, Barajas set up outside again, and Hanrahan missed again -- by only a few inches this time, but still enough for Adam LaRoche to hit it 400 feet. On June 3, the catcher set up outside, and Hanrahan actually did throw it there. Unfortunately, he left it up, and Brooks Conrad hit it out. On June 7, he left a 96-MPH fastball up for Ryan Ludwick, who blasted it.

On July 4, Hanrahan threw a low fastball to J.D. Martinez, who hit it to deep right. In this case, unlike the four others, Hanrahan appeared to throw the ball exactly where it was supposed to go. Unfortunately, he only threw it 94 MPH.

Of the five homers, only the one to Huff was a huge miss. But in four of five cases, he made mistakes that made his pitches significantly easier to hit. If you throw a middle-in fastball to Ryan Ludwick, chances are he'll destroy it.

I'm not quite sure what the fix for Hanrahan is. If he throws 94, he becomes a generic righty reliever, not a dominant closer. But if he's going to throw 97, he needs to be able to command his pitches. He's not there right now -- and not only is he missing with fastballs, he's missing with sliders, too.

The end result of all this -- the struggles with velocity, the struggles with command -- is that Hanrahan has been a replacement-level pitcher this year. (UPDATE: There's an argument in the comments about whether Fangraphs WAR is the right metric to use for high-strikeout, high-walk relievers like Hanrahan. Another advanced metric, SIERA, thinks Hanrahan has been somewhat better than that.) The idea that he, and not James McDonald or Jason Grilli or whoever, represented the Pirates in the All-Star Game is a joke of almost Mike Williamsian proportions.

I'm not sure there's anything that needs to be done about this. As someone on Twitter pointed out a couple weeks ago (I forget who), the fact that Clint Hurdle is using Hanrahan as a traditional closer has actually been to the Pirates' advantage this year, because he's frequently pitching with a two- or three-run lead rather than in truly high-leverage situations. But Grilli and Brad Lincoln are carrying the Pirates' bullpen, right now, not Hanrahan. And at this point, I have to chuckle at stuff like this:

The possibility of Joel Hanrahan and his 30 saves going in a blockbuster has been on the back burner all summer. Many elite teams that lack a proven closer would be willing to swap two Major League bats for him.

A "blockbuster"? Most GMs aren't dumb. You never want to say something's not going to happen, but unless those two "Major-League bats" are, let's say, Chone Figgins and Miguel Olivo, I don't see this happening. I don't know why a team would give up much of value for him, certainly not enough that the Pirates would get an actual upgrade anywhere but their bench. Maybe the Pirates could get an outfielder somehow, but a Hanrahan trade for an outfielder certainly wouldn't constitute a blockbuster. Hanrahan will probably make about $6 million in arbitration next year, and right now, there isn't much indication that he's worth that, at least not to a payroll-conscious team like the Pirates. If any team would be willing to trade something good for a couple months of Joel Hanrahan, I would think the Bucs would have to consider it.

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