GLENDALE, Ariz. — In a perfect dream scenario, every top prospect in the White Sox organization will hit. All of them will excel in the minors, go straight to the majors and dominate there as well.
But as we know, life isn’t perfect. There’s a big gap between a dream and reality, especially when it comes to baseball. Everyone must deal with failure along the way, some more than others.
Which brings us to Alec Hansen and his lost season of 2018.
“Everything last spring training was perfect. I was in really good shape. I was almost looking for something to go wrong. Then something did go wrong and it just kind of spiraled,” Hansen said in an interview on the White Sox Talk Podcast. “It was a struggle the whole year, honestly.”
Coming into last season, the 6-foot-7 fireballer was the No. 46 prospect in all of baseball, according to MLB Pipeline. His name was right up there with Dylan Cease, Michael Kopech and Dane Dunning as future members of the White Sox starting rotation. In his first full professional season in 2017, the White Sox second-round draft pick from 2016 backed up his sky-high potential, leading the minor leagues with 191 strikeouts in 141.1 innings.
He spoke confidently about where his career was headed. He even talked about making it to the majors by the end of the 2018 season. He also had a specific plan to make it happen.
“It’s a bummer that it backfired,” Hansen said.
Hansen revealed that he dropped a ton of weight last offseason, around 40 pounds. He thought it would make him more athletic and explosive, especially late in games. He wanted to maintain his velocity in the later innings and pointed to a fellow White Sox pitching prospect who seemed to be doing it with ease.
“You see Cease, he’s a perfect example of what I was trying to be. Throwing 98 in the last inning when you’re at 90 pitches. That’s what I was trying to do. Where as in 2017, I would be throwing 93, 92 in the sixth or seventh inning. I’d be in the first inning throwing 97. I was trying to maintain that velo, and I felt that losing weight and getting more athletic was the key. I was feeling really good,” Hansen said. “It would have been interesting to see how I would have performed last year if I had not gotten hurt and I stayed strong throughout the season.”
After one spring training appearance, Hansen went down with a forearm injury. That began a snowball effect that only intensified as the 2018 season wore on. He returned to the mound in June at Double-A Birmingham and struggled mightily. The pitcher who had a 2.80 ERA in 2017, mostly at Class A Kannapolis and Class A Winston-Salem, saw his ERA balloon to 6.56 at Birmingham with 42 walks and 35 strikeouts in 35.2 innings.
He wasn’t just struggling physically, but also mentally and emotionally.
“I’d be down to like 88 (mph) in the third inning because the mental frustration turned into anxiety. When you have a lot of anxiety and stress, your body doesn’t recover as well. That probably affected my velocity, because I’m kind of a power pitcher, so when I don’t have that, I don’t really feel like I’m myself, and become frustrated,” Hansen said.
In August, the White Sox sent Hansen back down to Winston-Salem, but his problems only worsened. He couldn’t make it to the fifth inning in any of his five starts and finished with a 5.74 ERA.
This was the same league that Hansen dominated the year before, but this clearly wasn’t the same Hansen.
His problems had reached such an abyss, he admits that the last place that he wanted to be was on a pitcher’s mound.
“You get to a point where you really don’t want to be out there, even though you should never be that like that, but that’s really how I was last year,” Hansen said. “Combining the mental thing magnified the physical aspects of my body at the time, not being as strong, not recovering as much because probably not sleeping as well because of all of the stress and everything. A combination of all those things probably affected my command.”
Hansen said he knows what White Sox fans might be thinking: Why did he lose all that weight after having such a great season the year before? His answer reveals the competitor inside him that doesn’t strive to be a good major league pitcher. He wants to be great.
“I don’t want to be just a back-of-the-rotation guy. I want to be like a Chris Sale, a Max Scherzer, a Justin Verlander. I want to be like one of those guys. In anything I do I want to be the best. I don’t want to settle for just being average. I really wanted to see what I could do. To get to that next level I feel like you always have to change something. That’s what I did, but it didn’t really work out so I’m back to where I was,” he said.
Hansen has gained back the 40 pounds. He came to Arizona on Jan. 10 to work with the White Sox training staff, which revamped his training methods and put him on a shoulder program.
“I feel like my shoulders are really strong and that’s a big key to throwing a baseball hard, so I’m excited to see what happens this year because that’s something I’ve never done before. I’d like to see the results of that. Just experimenting a little with everything and finding out what works best,” Hansen said.
He said he is scheduled to throw a live bullpen session Thursday, and then throw in a minor league game Monday.
Unlike last spring, when he openly aimed for reaching the major leagues, Hansen has lowered those expectations.
“Getting to Triple-A by the end of the year would be great for me,” he said.
But more than anything, it’s his mindset that Hansen wants to change. In the end, this is baseball. It’s a kid’s game. Last year, it felt like a job, and one he’d rather not be at.
“That’s one thing I really didn’t do last year was have a lot of fun. I didn’t really talk that much like I had in the past. It was kind of depressing honestly. I’m having a blast here in spring training, even though it’s the minor league side,” Hansen said. “I’m feeling strong. I’ve been throwing the ball well in my bullpens. I’m in a good place right now.”
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