GOODYEAR, Ariz.: Last week, a member of the Indians’ press corps asked manager Manny Acta if Jack Hannahan’s excellence at third came as a surprise, or if Tribe baseball people knew he was a defensive wizard when he was signed as a free agent in the winter of 2010.
Acta fixed his gaze on the reporter in a way that said, “You should know this answer.”
Acta did answer the question, of course.
“Everybody in the major leagues knows that Hannahan is a very good third baseman,” Acta said.
Hannahan is so good that last spring the media was told repeatedly that Hannahan was on the team to make plays at third and that anything he contributed at the plate would be a bonus.
As the season played out, Hannahan didn’t quite follow the script. As promised, he played spectacularly at third, but he also became a positive factor at the plate, delivering several big hits early to help the Tribe stay hot in April and May, then found his swing again late in the year.
Last spring Hannahan talked a lot about hitting the ball up the middle. He said he had gotten into bad habits trying to yank balls to right, buying into the idea that corner infielders are supposed to hit for power. But deep down, he knew he wasn’t that kind of hitter.
After batting .250 with eight home runs and 40 RBI in 320 at-bats, Hannahan knows he did the right thing last year. Granted, a .250 average isn’t going to get Hannahan any All-Star Game votes, but it is 20 points higher than his next previous best season.
“I’ve always played good defense,” Hannahan said. “That’s what got me to the big leagues and kept me in the big leagues. But by the end of the year, my offense caught up to my defense, so I’m excited to go into this year.”
His approach at the plate will be the same as last year — think middle of the field.
“That’s my strength,” he said. “You need to understand what kind of hitter you are. I’m a guy who’s not going to try to do too much. My strength is to go the other way. I had gotten into a position where I was trying to do too much to impress people, but you have to be yourself.”
Building on success
Hannahan came to camp last spring trying to make the roster. Jason Donald appeared to have the inside track as the starter at third, but early in camp he suffered an injury that took him out of the running. This spring, Hannahan came to camp as one of two competitors for the everyday third-base job. It will be either him or Lonnie Chisenhall, who made his major-league debut in 2011. Over the long haul, the Indians are counting on Chisenhall to be the regular, but for this season, Hannahan probably has the edge.
Why? His performance in 2011 demonstrated that he can handle the everyday job, not only in the field but offensively. Moreover, Chisenhall has options remaining — Hannahan does not.
Both Chisenhall and Hannahan bat from the left side, but Hannahan has made a career of hitting lefties well, and he seems to be improving. Last year, he hit .296 against left-handers, raising his career average to .249. Against righties, he batted .226 in 2011 and has a .224 average for his career.
“I’ve always hit lefties better than right-handers, even coming up through the minors,” Hannahan said. “In the big leagues, I started to struggle some against lefties, but I made an adjustment last spring. I tried to wait longer [on the pitch], let the ball get a little deeper.”
Competition upon arrival
Hannahan was briefed on his status when he came to camp.
“They said it’s going to be a competition,” he said. “One thing, we have a team full of sinkerballers, so we’re going to need to get outs.”
Sinkerball pitchers induce opposing batters to hit ground balls. Hannahan catches ground balls with the aplomb of few other infielders in the big leagues. In terms of his quest to become the regular at third, advantage Hannahan.
But as the veteran, he has encountered the Chisenhalls of the world before, players who played one position and were shifted to another. Chisenhall was drafted as a shortstop and has been making the transition to third ever since.
“When I was 25, I made 25 errors at Double-A,” he said. “I’m Lonnie’s biggest fan. He’s going to do a lot of special things in this game. I don’t know how many years I’m going to play, but when I leave I know he’ll be a very good third baseman.”
Hannahan wants to help.
“I was fortunate enough to play with guys who talked to me,” he said. “I’ll try to show Lonnie some of the tricks of the trade. The game is so fast, it’s tough for a young guy to come in and do everything right.”
Hannahan should know. He’s still discovering new tricks of the trade.
Sheldon Ocker can be reached at email@example.com. Read the Indians blog at http://www.ohio.com/tribematters. Follow him on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/SheldonOckerABJ and on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.