Ex-Pirate relating MLB experience to Curve pitchers

Photo for the Mirror by Chuck Meyers Joel Hanrahan, now the pitching coach for the Curve, was a two-time NL All-Star with the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Professional baseball, particularly at its highest levels, is a myriad of highs and lows, and peaks and valleys, that can offer experiences of numbing disappointment as well as intense fulfillment.

Joel Hanrahan, in his first year as a pitching coach with the Altoona Curve, sampled the full gamut of those ups and downs in a Major League Baseball career that spanned several years with four organizations.

After beginning his career as a starting pitcher with the Washington Nationals in 2007, Hanrahan was a National League All-Star in 2011 and 2012 as an outstanding closer with the Pittsburgh Pirates.

But by 2016, after undergoing two separate Tommy John elbow surgeries that left him unable to compete in both the 2014 and 2015 seasons, Hanrahan’s pitching career was over.

After being traded by the Pirates to Boston in 2013, Hanrahan underwent season-ending Tommy John surgery in mid-May of that season, after an MRI revealed a damaged flexor tendon in his right pitching elbow.

Released by the Red Sox in October 2013, Hanrahan signed a one-year contract with the Detroit Tigers in May of 2014. But, due to his recovery from the surgery, Hanrahan never pitched in a game for the Tigers and was released by Detroit in March of 2015 after being diagnosed with a tear in the ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow.

That required another surgery, and Hanrahan retired from baseball in November 2016.

“I blew out, and I never got healthy again,” Hanrahan, 37, was saying the other day before the Curve started its weekend series with Akron at Peoples Natural Gas Field. “I thought I was healthy, I signed with Detroit, and things never worked out there.

“It was tough, but everybody runs out of time at some point,” Hanrahan said.

After throwing fastballs at speeds of nearly 100 miles per hour for many seasons, Hanrahan’s arm gave out. Fortunately, he was able to stay in baseball by fashioning a career as a pitching coach in the Pirates organization.

He’s in Altoona this year after spending the 2018 season as a pitching coach for the Pirates’ Class A West Virginia Power team in the South Atlantic League, and the 2017 season as an assistant pitching coach with the Pirates’ short-season West Virginia Black Bears team in the New York-Penn League.

Hanrahan hopes to instill in the Curve pitchers the same drive and confidence that carried him to prominence with the Pirates.

“I just want them to trust in themselves and believe in themselves,” Hanrahan said. “I’m just trying to get that excitement out of them, to help them to really believe in themselves, and to know that they can succeed in the major leagues.”

Right-handed starting pitcher James Marvel is one of many Curve hurlers who have benefited from Hanrahan’s expert tutelage.

“It’s been great, working with a former All-Star and established big-leaguer,” Marvel said of Hanrahan. “It’s pretty cool being able to come to the field and have a guy like that work with you. We have great pitching coaches throughout the organization, but getting to work with a guy like that is a privilege.

“In his playing career, I think he did a little bit of everything,” Marvel said. “He got to the big leagues as a starter and dealt with everything from being a starter to a long reliever, to a set-up guy, to a closer. He had his ups and downs, so I think that he is able to relate to every guy on this (pitching) staff.”

Curve manager Michael Ryan also has the utmost respect for Hanrahan.

“He’s an intense guy, very competitive, and his knowledge (of the game) is just unbelievable,” Ryan said. “He’s a Major League All-Star with a bunch of knowledge, and he can take that out of his back pocket whenever he wants.

“Our guys really trust him,” Ryan said. “It’s such an advantage to have a guy like that here. I’m honored to be on the same (coaching) staff with him.”

After launching his MLB career as a starter with Washington, Hanrahan carded 100 saves as a reliever from 2008 to 2013 with the Nationals, Pirates and Red Sox. In 2011, he had 40 saves and a 1.83 earned run average in 70 appearances with the Pirates, and in 2012, he was 5-2 with a 2.72 ERA and 36 saves in 63 appearances with the Bucs.

Not only was Hanrahan selected to the NL All-Star team in both those seasons, but he helped the Pirates turn around what had been a losing culture and reconnect with baseball fans in Pittsburgh. The Pirates were NL Central Division title contenders in the first half of both the 2011 and 2012 seasons, before second-half stumbles in both of those years kept them out of the playoffs.

In 2013, Pittsburgh punched its first ticket into the postseason in 20 years, and followed that up with posteason appearances in 2014 and 2015. Although Hanrahan wasn’t around for the October baseball in Pittsburgh, he was one of the players who helped to set the winning trend back in motion.

“Obviously, going to the All-Star Game in 2011 and 2012 was a pretty big experience,” said Hanrahan, who combined a slick slider with his overpowering fastball during his glory years with the Pirates. “We were right there in the thick of things in the first half of both seasons, trying to make the playoffs there. That was the start of it. In 2011 and 2012, we kind of brought the hope that the tide was turning.”

Now, Hanrahan brings the same enthusiasm to his new job with the Curve.

“Obviously, we’ve had our ups and downs as a team so far, but the experience in Altoona has been great, it’s been awesome,” Hanrahan said. “The stadium is unbelievable. The whole Altoona Curve experience has been good so far.”

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