Good coaching goes a long way. Just ask White Sox pitching prospect Alec Hansen, who’s made big strides in a small amount of time since beginning his pro career.
Before the start of his junior season at Oklahoma, Hansen was viewed by the industry as a candidate for the top overall pick in the 2016 draft. It was easy to see why, as he checked off nearly every box that scouts look for in starting pitching prospects: size, velocity, stuff, ease of motion and more. He was also coming off a promising sophomore campaign, which raised the expectations.
The big right-hander, however, didn’t put together the kind of performance in the spring that evaluators thought he would. Though he remained healthy – answering questions about his durability after a history of elbow troubles – his performance regressed from the previous year.
Hansen made 10 starts for the Sooners, getting sent to the bullpen in mid-season due to control issues before eventually returning to the rotation. His final line for the season wasn’t pretty. Across 51.2 innings, he pitched to a 5.40 ERA and 1.61 WHIP, collecting 75 strikeouts with 39 walks as he flashed plus stuff across the board but rarely harnessed it.
Despite that top-of-the-rotation stuff, he slipped to the second round as several teams opted for college pitchers with lower ceilings but fewer concerns about their feel to pitch and ability to stay in a rotation. The White Sox ultimately took him with the 49th overall selection.
Now nine starts into his pro career, Hansen is learning to reign himself in. He began his pro career by pitching seven scoreless innings in the Arizona League before he was promoted to the Great Falls Voyagers of the Rookie-level Pioneer League, where he’s compiled a 1.47 ERA across 30.2 innings with just 11 hits allowed and 46 strikeouts against nine walks.
I recently spoke with Hansen to learn what adjustments he’s made that now have him scratching the surface of his potential. He credits Voyagers pitching coach Matt Zaleski for helping him reinforce his mechanics to improve the repeatability of his delivery.
“The biggest thing is when I lift my leg and go down the mound, is just staying over myself, keeping my chest over my toes and not leaning back toward first base,” Hansen explained to me. This is what he works on in bullpens when, as he describes it, he starts “to get a little out of whack.”
Zaleski elaborated, noting how Hansen has proven himself to be a sponge when it comes to receiving instruction.
“[We’ve worked on] him staying back, staying over the rubber, being able to keep his posture to where he can use his height to throw the ball downhill with angle,” Zaleski said. “It’s more just consistency because he does do it out of the stretch really well. Out of the windup, he sometimes can rush, his arm can drag behind a little bit. We’re just trying to keep the tempo of his windup and his delivery and his direction going toward home plate rather than spinning off to the side.”
According to Zaleski, Hansen has run his fastball up to 98 mph with the Voyagers, sitting mostly around 94. He mixes the heater with an upper-70s curveball, a mid-80s slider and a changeup that arrives between 84-86 mph.
In addition to repeating his mechanics, White Sox officials have also spoken with Hansen about developing a better feel for his offspeed pitches – and when is the best time to do so.
“I think for my slider and changeup, just throwing those more and developing a better feel for those is what’s going to help me. … I’ve got the feel for [the changeup], it’s just developing consistency with it, throwing it for a strike and throwing it where I want to in different counts,” Hansen said. “I talked with Zaleski and some other guys – coaches in the organization and directors – about finding a way during the game to work on that stuff and focus on winning at the same time.”
Hansen still has a longer developmental timeline than most of the college hurlers who were drafted before him, but his ceiling is perhaps the highest. Reaching it will require more absorption and application of pro instruction.
“[Zaleski] has pointed out a couple of things to me have helped in the last couple of games about what hitters do,” he said. “I’m kind of just learning as I go along.”