Having a professional debut delayed by injury is bad enough. But to have it delayed by two years?
"That was horrible," said Jesse Hahn, Hudson Valley Renegades pitcher who had been forced to sit out since being drafted in 2010. "Basically I practiced and watched baseball for two years; everyone knows it's hard to watch baseball and not be able to play. Just sitting around was rough, but I got through it."
Hahn made his professional debut as a member of the Renegades' starting rotation this season, more than two years after he was taken in the sixth round of the 2010 draft. The 6-5 right-hander out of Virginia Tech learned two days before he was drafted that he would need Tommy John surgery after suffering the injury in the College World Series Super Regional. Recovery from the surgery combined with a foot injury last season prevented Hahn from seeing any action in 2011.
Not many people can understand completely what Hahn went through, but Renegades pitching coach Kyle Snyder can relate better than maybe anyone else. Snyder missed his first two years of professional baseball for Tommy John surgery as well.
"It's tough to miss two seasons," Snyder said, "to not compete when all you're used to doing is playing a game that you love. Guys that you were drafted with, you see them continue to climb the ladder and get opportunities to continue to develop their skills."
Finally, in 2012, Hahn is getting that opportunity. And he is taking full advantage.
"I feel great," Hahn said. "I'm just excited to be pitching again after taking two years off. I'm just finally glad my arm is healthy and I can start every five days."
The Groton, Conn. native has made ten starts so far this year for a total of 32 innings. He has an ERA of 4.22, but with the removal of Hahn's second start of the season, in which he gave up six earned runs in 1.1 innings, his numbers go down to nine total earned runs off 23 hits in 30.2 innings. He has struck out 31 hitters and walked just 13.
Hahn's best pitch is a fastball that ranges from 92 to 96. He throws a four- and two-seamer, as well as a curveball, changeup and slider.
"(He has) probably as good an angle as anybody in the organization just in terms of his leverage and where he throws," Snyder said of Hahn's pitching. "He throws from a high three-quarters slide, I'd call it, throws a good 12-6 curveball, an improving changeup — it's made some significant strides just in the short time he's been here."
Manager Jared Sandberg has been impressed by Hahn's stuff too, saying that there is a good reason he was drafted where he was despite the injury."Now he's on the mound and he shows and explosive fastball, a curveball with tremendous bite," Sandberg said. "He's got three solid pitches that will allow him to climb the ladder in professional baseball."
The minor leagues can be a hard place for a player with a serious injury, with someone always ready to step in. For Hahn, it is reassuring to know that the Rays still wanted him despite knowledge of the injury.
"Yeah that's awesome," Hahn said of the Rays' trust in his ability. "I'm so glad that they've taken the time these past two years to be patient with me and make sure I'm good to go again."
With comebacks from Tommy John surgery becoming more commonplace in baseball, it seemed to be an easy decision for the Rays.
"The Rays are obviously a very intelligent franchise that understands the success rate of that surgery now compared to 10, 20 years ago," Snyder said. "The risk-reward certainly is there. I think at the end of the day, you still got a very big arm, athletic build, tall kid, great angle, and four pitches. I don't think there's any question that had he been healthy, he would have been a top shelf, first round draft pick."
This season still is focused primarily on rehabilitation for Hahn, with him not throwing more than four innings in a start so far. The Renegades staff is taking it slow with the 23-year-old, minimizing the possibility of further injury. It is the game-speed experience that he needs right now.
"My main focus him is to get out there every five, six days and continue to develop a level of trust in his health," Snyder said. "My main goal for him is to finish the year healthy and go into the off-season with the whole rehab phase of his career behind him and be able to come into spring training ready to compete for a job. Each time out he just needs to pitch and get that experience. Game-speed experience is something he hasn't been too familiar with the last couple years."
Hahn sees room for improvement, but he also has seen a tremendous amount of progress already.
"I still think my arm has room to get stronger because I'm still building arm strength," Hahn said. "The curveball and slider are starting to come back now. It was hard to throw those at first because my elbow was real tight but it's loosening up."
While this year is still the rehab phase, just being able to get out on the field and pitch is making a world of difference for Hahn. After two years without throwing a single pitch in a game, he is not taking for granted the chance to improve and move up the ladder of minor league baseball.
"He's definitely making strides each time out," Snyder said. "He's got four quality pitches and obviously a very big arm, a lot of talent and a bright future."
Eric Vander Voort is the Hudson Valley beat writer for Rays Digest. You can follow him on Twitter at @ecvandervoort.
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