White Sox

White Sox pitching prospect Alec Hansen reflects on lost season: 'It just kind of spiraled'

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AP

White Sox pitching prospect Alec Hansen reflects on lost season: 'It just kind of spiraled'

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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White Sox Talk Podcast: The White Sox should be better than this

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USA TODAY

White Sox Talk Podcast: The White Sox should be better than this

It's still April, but we all agree: the White Sox are underperforming as a team.

Chuck Garfien, Ryan McGuffey, Vinnie Duber and Chris Kamka break down the reasons why (1:30). What's going on with Ivan Nova and Ervin Santana? (5:20)

Could Dylan Cease be the answer sooner rather than later? (10:55)

Why the White Sox should be .500 (17:15).

What's going on with Jon Jay and how his signing is backfiring so far (19:30) and more.

Listen to the entire podcast here or in the embedded player below.

White Sox Talk Podcast

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A White Sox team with raised expectations was supposed to beat the bottom of the barrel, but they haven't so far in 2019

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USA TODAY

A White Sox team with raised expectations was supposed to beat the bottom of the barrel, but they haven't so far in 2019

The White Sox might not be destined for the postseason in 2019. They might not be destined to finish .500, what with the rebuild still grinding along on the South Side.

But this team spent spring training talking about raised expectations, a logical next step for a group of young players supposed to make up part if not much of the rosters of the future that will carry expectations of a lot more success. And while the individual improvements of Yoan Moncada and Tim Anderson and and Eloy Jimenez and Carlos Rodon and Reynaldo Lopez are more important than whatever the win-loss record ends up being, there was a realistic hope within the fan base for more wins.

In part, that was due to the competition around these White Sox. The AL Central is aggressively weak, the Kansas City Royals and Detroit Tigers further back in their own rebuilding efforts than Rick Hahn's front office ever was and the supposed "upper echelon" of the Cleveland Indians and Minnesota Twins anything but terrifying. Outside of the Boston Red Sox (who to this point have been atrocious in defending their World Series championship), the New York Yankees (with a ridiculous number of players on the injured list) and the Houston Astros (generally taking care of business though not in first place in the AL West), did any other American League team look unbeatable during the preseason?

And yet, 23 games into their 2019 campaign, the White Sox have been knocked around by the American League — the good, the bad and the ugly of it.

Wednesday's 4-3 defeat to clinch a series loss to the Baltimore Orioles was particularly disheartening when it comes to which teams the White Sox will be able to take advantage of this season. The Orioles lost 115 games in 2018, the worst team in baseball, and things aren't exactly looking up this time around, either. Well, they just took two of three against the White Sox, knocking the South Side starting staff around enough that Ervin Santana's 4.2 innings of work Wednesday were the most of a White Sox starter in the series. Manny Banuelos and Ivan Nova went four innings apiece in the first two contests.

The Royals and Tigers? Those two teams combined to lose 202 games last season and seemed good bets to finish with worse records than the White Sox this season. That can certainly still happen, but so far the White Sox have split six games against the Royals and dropped two of three in their first series against the Tigers last weekend.

They've split two games with the Indians. They went a gross 1-5 against two surprise division leaders, the Tampa Bay Rays and Seattle Mariners. The only team the White Sox have a winning record against is the aforementioned Yankees thanks to taking two of three in The Bronx earlier this month.

A rebuilding team not expected to make the playoffs losing to a smattering of teams including two of the best in the game to this point is not surprising. No one should pretend that other teams aren't seeing the White Sox in the same light White Sox fans see the Royals and Tigers and Orioles. The White Sox lost 100 games last year, too.

But if the expectations have truly increased, if there is progress truly being made, then these are the teams the White Sox should be showing that progress against. They haven't.

Now, individually, things are a bit of a different story. This series in Baltimore featured no starting pitcher that can be considered a part of the White Sox long-term plans, and Nova and Santana turning in losing efforts against the Orioles, no matter how frustrating, doesn't really have negative consequences for the future. Anderson and Moncada are still batting over .300, Jose Abreu could be in the middle of an early season turnaround, and the bullpen only gave up two runs in three games despite pitching more than 12 innings. In the end, what the young guys do will be what's most important, not the White Sox record against any individual team this season.

But the frustrations can be understood — and surely they're being felt inside the White Sox clubhouse as much as they are outside it — because taking care of business against teams expected to be at the bottom of the standings was supposed to be one of the examples of progress, one of the examples of improvement. The White Sox haven't taken care of business against those teams yet this season.

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