Don't scoff at hot-hitting Hannahan
Journeyman shining in Tribe's lineup with less-is-more approach
CLEVELAND -- His name is up there alongside the American League leaders -- in batting average, in on-base percentage, in RBIs. He's had two game-winning hits in the past week alone, making him such a pivotal part of his club's offense that his manager recently said, "We want to see him up here" in clutch situations.Obviously, we're talking about Indians third baseman Jack Hannahan, a 32-year-old journeyman who entered 2012 with a career-adjusted OPS a full 16 points below league average. Obviously. Hannahan has become one of those April illusions that you don't know whether to brush off or believe. No, he's not likely to keep up this pace -- a .308 average, .393 OBP and 13 RBIs in 15 games -- but he's playing the game with such flash and such focus that it seems unwise to write him off. No doubt, many have written him off before. When an alcohol addiction nearly derailed his college career. When his first everyday opportunity in the bigs -- filling in for an injured Eric Chavez in Oakland in 2008 -- resulted in a .218/.305/.342 slash line. And when an Indians team that thrust him into the third-base job as a last-ditch option in 2011 ripped him out of the role in midseason by promoting one of its top prospects. Add it all up and you might assume Hannahan has no business here, impacting an Indians team off to a respectable 9-8 start. But he's here, and, in the immediate, he's an indispensable piece. Not that Hannahan's taking that status for granted. "I've been around long enough to see just about everything and anything [that] happens in this game," he says. "I've seen it all." He saw the game slipping away from him all too early. Hannahan started drinking in high school, and when he'd drink, he'd get into trouble. He was kicked off the baseball team during his sophomore year at Cretin-Durham Hall High School in St. Paul, Minn. And twice he was suspended because of alcohol during an otherwise accomplished career at the University of Minnesota. "I was a train wreck," he says now. Hannahan doesn't wish to say much more than that. You get the sense that he doesn't want to come across as "holier than thou," but know that he came to the conclusion, at 20 years old, that it was time to pull himself out of the wreckage that alcohol had wrought. He entered rehab, did the 12 steps, embraced his Catholic upbringing and came out clean. He hasn't had a drink in more than a decade. But the bout with booze was only the beginning of Hannahan's uphill climb to coherence at the Major League level. He was Big Ten Player of the Year in 2000 and a third-round Draft pick by the Tigers, but his Minor League career lagged. He spent parts of four seasons in Double-A and parts of five in Triple-A. The all-glove, no-stick label stuck, and Hannahan was just a warm body -- traded by the Tigers, then the A's, then the Mariners -- who came to Cleveland last year as a non-roster invitee with no prior Major League success to speak of. "I've never been told, 'Hey, you're our guy,'" he says. And that's true with the Tribe, too. The Indians' "guy," as it were, is Lonnie Chisenhall, a former No. 1 pick, and Jason Donald was supposed to be the stopgap. But when Donald broke his hand in spring camp last year, Hannahan was thrust into the role. He was stellar defensively, but his bat dragged, and the Indians gave Chisenhall the call in June. That's the part of the story where Hannahan probably should have become a bit player, riding that role to its inevitable, anticlimactic conclusion. But something happened to Hannahan in the second half last season -- something that transpired roughly around the time of the premature birth of his son, Johnny -- and he hasn't been the same since. "I've had a ton of hitting coaches tell me 'You're swinging too hard,'" he says. "But it never really clicked until last year, when I had nothing to lose." A switch to a heavier bat, and more important, an adjustment in the timing of his swing helped Hannahan hit .364 in a part-time role in the season's final two months. "One day, I finally got a start, and I decided to use this bigger bat in the game," he says. "The first pitch, I had no chance to hit. But that next pitch, I put my foot down uncomfortably early, saw the pitch and let my hands work. I hit a line drive up the middle and said, 'That's it.'" And the softer swing was accompanied by a shift in focus. His wife, Jenny, was having complications with her pregnancy and was on bed rest for 24 weeks. When the team was in town, Hannahan would spend his time with her at the hospital. "There were times where I'd show up at 5:45 or 6 o'clock for a 7 o'clock game and I'd be in the lineup," he says. "I'd hit a couple balls off the tee, go in and have one of my best games. Not thinking about who was pitching, not seeing any film on them, just going out and playing. I really had a clear head." Johnny was born two months premature, while the Indians were in Boston. And the story of Hannahan's teammates all pitching in to pay for a late-night chartered flight to get him back to Cleveland in time for the birth was one of the best stories in baseball last year. Here in 2012, little Johnny is doing very well, and Hannahan's story continues. He beat Chisenhall for the starting third-base job in camp, and the results have kept coming from that less-is-more approach. How long can it continue? Who knows? Chisenhall is still considered the future at third, and Hannahan will have to keep the results coming to silence the skeptics. But he believes in himself, and sometimes that's half the battle. "I'm too old to look in the rear-view mirror anymore," he says. "I feel really relaxed playing. It's nothing I've ever felt before. And I'm having a ton of fun."
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, CastroTurf, and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.