Jesse Hahn is Ready to Return to Oakland Athletics Rotation

Mar 7, 2016; Mesa, AZ, USA; Oakland Athletics starting pitcher Jesse Hahn (32) throws in the first inning against the Kansas City Royals during a spring training game at HoHoKam Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Rick Scuteri-USA TODAY Sports
Mar 7, 2016; Mesa, AZ, USA; Oakland Athletics starting pitcher Jesse Hahn (32) throws in the first inning against the Kansas City Royals during a spring training game at HoHoKam Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Rick Scuteri-USA TODAY Sports /

Is it time for the Oakland Athletics to add Jesse Hahn to the rotation?

The Oakland Athletics made a tough decision at the end of Spring Training, announcing that right-hander Jesse Hahn would be sent to Triple-A Nashville to start the year, rather than slotting in behind Sonny Gray and Rich Hill in the major league rotation. Instead, veteran Felix Doubront was slated to take the final big league job.

Before Doubront could even make his first start, however, he was placed on the disabled list with forearm soreness, and soon had season-ending Tommy John surgery. Even then, the Athletics elected to go with lefty Eric Surkamp, who had performed well in Spring Training after pitching just 3.1 innings with the Dodgers last year and allowing four runs.

Surkamp’s major league experience is mostly as a reliever, having pitched 35 games as a reliever for the Chicago White Sox in 2014. His last big league start came in 2013 with the Giants, when he allowed seven runs in under three innings in his only game that season.

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So far, it seems like Surkamp might make a better reliever than a starter. While he’s pitched acceptably this season, he’s also failed to pitch six innings in any of his first three starts. He has pitched slightly deeper into the game in each outing, going 4.1 innings, then 4.2, and finally 5.2 innings his last time out. In those three games, he’s allowed six earned runs, 16 hits, and eight walks, while striking out six batters.

The concerning part of Surkamp’s results thus far have little to do with his opponents’ success, and more to do with his inability to pitch deep into the game. It’s taxing on the bullpen, and while the relief staff is capable of handling a heavy workload this early in the season, they won’t be able to keep up this pace for a full year.

Meanwhile, Hahn has been busy in Triple-A. He’s made two starts for the Sounds, lasting exactly six innings in each. At the time of this post, he was slated to start the first game of Wednesday’s doubleheader for Nashville. He has yet to allow a run, and has given up just six hits and four walks, while striking out 11 batters. If that walk rate seems a bit high, it’s because it is – 9.3 percent – but Hahn’s thrown nearly 70 percent of his pitches for strikes, so it might be more of a small sample size problem than an “not being able to hit the strike zone” problem.

One of the reasons that Hahn was sent down was to allow him to figure out how to pitch without his slider. He determined that the slider may have contributed to the forearm issues he faced last season, and considering that it wasn’t a particularly important pitch for him, he was able to drop it from his repertoire.

Given that Hahn threw sliders less than five percent of the time in 2014, that doesn’t seem like a big deal, but his ineffectiveness in Spring Training led some to wonder if perhaps the absence of the slider was allowing hitters to get more comfortable and wait for Hahn’s fastball. There was also speculation that low-pressure innings might be a good way to avoid a repeat of last year’s injury, or that Hahn might need some time to get back into form at Triple-A after missing the second half of 2015.

Whatever the issues were during his Cactus League starts, Hahn seems to have overcome them quickly. If he posts a third spectacular start, it’s hard to see a scenario in which the A’s can ignore it. Hahn was even sharper in his second outing than in his first – of his four walks, three were in his first start. Another scoreless outing should guarantee him a spot in the big leagues.

Unfortunately for Surkamp, he’s probably the odd man out. While he could slot into a relief role, the A’s will likely want to keep plenty of starting depth on hand at Triple-A after last year’s second-half injury issues, and the only reliever with flexibility is Ryan Dull, who has performed well after earning an Opening Day spot on the roster.

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If Hahn can help the A’s more than Surkamp, however, the front office needs to go ahead and make the decision – even if it’s a tough one. There will certainly be other options for Surkamp down the road, as injuries and ineffectiveness begin to force the A’s to make changes. So far, the Athletics haven’t needed to make many roster moves, but this is one that could truly make a difference to whether the A’s are able to keep up their current pace and hang in the race for the majority of the season.

Editor’s Note: After the deadline for this post, Hahn pitched a limited start for Nashville in order to get the Sounds’ rotation back on track after a doubleheader. His is scheduled to pitch again Sunday, on four days rest. In 2.1 innings, Hahn threw 49 pitches. He allowed three hits and a pair of walks, struck out two, and gave up his first run of the season.