The Transition: Jack Hannahan

Hannahan has found a niche in the MLB as a defensive specialist, but with the Gophers, he starred at the plate as well.

Derek Wetmore

When the Cleveland Indians entered last offseason, improving their infield defense was a priority. For that reason, former Gophers player Jack Hannahan, a career .226 hitter, was near the top of their list.

After starring for the Gophers both offensively and defensively from 1999 to 2001, Hannahan has made a name for himself in Major League Baseball as a slick-fielding third baseman.

His Indians were in town and were swept by the Minnesota Twins in a rain-shortened, two-game series last weekend. Hannahan was 2-for-6 in the series but his manager, Manny Acta, said offensive production from the Cretin-Derham Hall graduate is just a bonus.

Hannahan signed with the Indians this offseason despite interest from other teams like the Toronto Blue Jays, Milwaukee Brewers, Cincinnati Reds and Detroit Tigers.  

Though the Indians are currently leading the American League Central, they are not expected to be in the race by seasonâÄôs end, and all of the other teams that showed interest in Hannahan are projected by the Hardball Times to win more games.

Hannahan said he chose the Indians so he could start.

Priorities

Though Hannahan had an opportunity to sign with any of several teams viewed as more legitimate contenders in their respective divisions, at this juncture in his career, winning isnâÄôt everything.

âÄúThere were other teams interested, but Cleveland stuck out because of their uncertainty in their infield coming into spring training,âÄù he said. âÄúThatâÄôs why I signed [there].âÄù

Hannahan has bounced from team to team quite a bit in his career. Perhaps the most trying year came last season when he was injured in spring training with the Seattle Mariners and spent the year with Triple-A Tacoma before a midseason trade to the Boston Red Sox.

He was stuck at Triple-A Pawtucket while with the Red Sox as well.

âÄúI had that team in Seattle made and I got hurt in spring training. I never really got healthy all year. I tried playing with it and it was a tough year.

âÄúIt was good to come in healthy this year and win a job in spring.âÄù

Given the way the MLBâÄôs pay scale works, Hannahan said he feels like he needs to establish himself before he gains major league service time and thus becomes expensive.

As he put it, if youâÄôre not performing, there are âÄú350 minor leaguers in every organization that want to take your job.âÄù

When a player first breaks into the league, a team can pay him the major league minimum salary, which in 2010 was $400,000. After accruing three years of major league service time, players can file for arbitration in which the player submits a desired salary amount and the team submits its desired wage for the player.

The two sides often meet in the middle but, if not, both parties meet with an arbiter to determine that playerâÄôs salary. This process is repeated for the next three years, and when a player reaches six years of service time, he can file for free agency, where the market generally determines a playerâÄôs value.

Hannahan is making $500,000 and is in his third year of service time, which is why he felt the need to find regular playing time.

âÄúA lot of people have a short-term memory in this game in terms of what people have done in the past,âÄù Hannahan said. âÄúOnce you get to the big leagues you need to stay consistent. If everybody could be like a Joe Mauer, they would be. He makes this game look real easy and itâÄôs not.âÄù

One minor leaguer hot on HannahanâÄôs heels is Lonnie Chisenhall. He was ClevelandâÄôs first round pick in 2008, and the third baseman is one of the top prospects in minor league baseball.

Finding his niche

Hannahan earned All-America honors in his freshman season at Minnesota after hitting .360 with 28 runs scored and 30 RBIs. He played that summer in a wood bat league with the Mankato Mashers, where he started to adjust to the different style of play.

The following spring with the Gophers, he hit .327 with 46 runs scored and 43 driven in. He capped his college career with a Big Ten Player of the Year award his junior season, in which he batted .372, scored 65 runs, hit 15 homeruns and drove in 63 runs. He also hit 20 doubles and stole 16 bases that season.

In short, Hannahan was a complete player in college, dominating at the plate and on the field.

âÄúJack was a tremendous defensive player in college. Very athletic,âÄù Gophers head coach John Anderson said. âÄúI would say in my coaching career heâÄôs surely one of the best âÄî if not the best âÄî third baseman I ever had.âÄù

In the majors, however, Hannahan has become known as an elite fielder who struggles at the dish.

âÄúHeâÄôs always been a good defender. HeâÄôs got good footwork and real soft hands and has a good internal clock, as we call it, to make those throws [on double plays],âÄù Acta said. âÄúHeâÄôs solid over there [at third base] going to the sides and coming in.

âÄúHis question mark has always been his bat up at this level.âÄù

Acta said he and his coaching staff told Hannahan in spring training this year that they liked his defense but wanted to see progress offensively so they could get more out of his bat if he made the team.

Hannahan made a mechanical adjustment to his swing to be more compact and quicker to the ball. He hit very well in spring training, Acta said, and started the year on a hot streak.

âÄúWeâÄôre not expecting him to all of a sudden become Wade Boggs,âÄù Acta said. âÄúHeâÄôs been around and I know heâÄôs made some adjustments and itâÄôs paid off at the plate.âÄù

After the hot start, however, Hannahan suffered a slight hamstring injury, which he said has hindered his hitting ability, and heâÄôs now batting just .255.

âÄúDuring the first month heâÄôs contributed so much defensively and also has gotten some huge hits for us,âÄù Acta said. âÄúSo far, no complaints.âÄù

A great fit

The Indians struggled defensively on the left side of the infield last year after shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera was lost for the year to injury and third baseman Jhonny Peralta was traded to the Tigers.

Their starting pitching staff is also full of sinkerball pitchers who induce a high number of ground balls, making infield defense paramount.

âÄúDuring the offseason we made a point to improve our defense and we target people like Jack,âÄù Acta said.

Acta is an astute manager who has a background in the statistical analysis side of the game, so the value of a player like Hannahan is not lost on him.

He and his analytics department use advanced defensive metrics such as Defensive Runs Saved and Ultimate Zone Rating, where Hannahan rates well, to attempt to quantify defensive contributions and assign a value to them.

In his last full season of play âÄî 2008 with the Oakland Athletics âÄî Hannahan saved 16 runs with his glove, according to the Fielding Bible. A rough estimate for the value of runs is 10 runs to one win over a season. According to DRS, the AâÄôs were 1.6 wins better off by seasonâÄôs end with HannahanâÄôs glove at third than they would have been with a league-average defender.

âÄúWe pay attention to all of those [metrics],âÄù Acta said. âÄúObviously, our analytical department goes over all those metrics and Jack is a guy just like Adam Everett. Over the years they have added value to the teams just on defense alone. ThatâÄôs something we were looking for here because we might have some offense in some other spots where we can just have that defense at third base.âÄù

Home

After signing with Detroit in the third round of the 2001 first-year player draft âÄî the same year as Cretin buddy Joe Mauer âÄî Hannahan has played for a medley of teams.

His next stop was Oakland, where he played part of 2007 and most of 2008. He was then traded to Seattle in July 2009.

The following July, he was traded to a Boston team that at the time was decimated by injuries. He never played a game for the Red Sox, though.

In December 2010, Hannahan inked a free agent minor league contract with the Indians.

Home has become a relative term, but Hannahan said he considers playing the Twins a homecoming after years of bouncing around the country. He said he left roughly 100 tickets each game for friends and family to watch him play at Target Field. He estimated that 10 former Gophers would be in attendance to watch him.

He has a condo in Cleveland for the season, but still owns a house in St. Paul.

âÄúAfter all the moves and different teams, itâÄôs always good to come back and play in front of my friends and family,âÄù Hannahan said.