ATLANTA - The buzz started last fall, when Tommy Hanson dominated in Arizona. It got even louder in spring training, where he was compared to a young John Smoltz. When Hanson got his shot at the majors - instead of Tom Glavine, no less - the expectations couldn't have been higher.
The 23-year-old right-hander has lived up to all the hype.
'He's pretty special,' Atlanta Braves manager Bobby Cox said. 'He's been everything that everybody thought he would be.'
And then some.
Hanson already has 10 wins as a rookie, even though he spent the first month of the season in Triple-A. He already looks like a worthy successor to the Braves' proud legacy of starting pitchers, a lineage that includes Smoltz, Glavine and Greg Maddux - all probable Hall of Famers.
'I didn't know what to envision. I didn't know what to expect,' the laid-back Hanson said. 'I just wanted to come up and do my best and make adjustments when I needed to. I couldn't be happier with the way everything's going. I feel like I've already learned a lot and still have a lot more stuff to learn. Hopefully I'll keep doing it at this pace and everything will be good.'
He's been very good already. Through his first 18 big-league starts, Hanson was 10-3 with a 2.65 ERA. He's allowed only 89 hits in 1082/3 innings, and his strikeout-to-walks ratio (93-to-39) is right in the range that's expected from a top pitcher.
Everyone raves about Hanson being able to throw four pitches for strikes (fastball, changeup, curve, slider) and his ability to adjust to hitters like a veteran, not to mention a demeanor that exudes cool confidence.
'We'll probably be battling him for long time in this division,' said Jerry Manuel, manager of the NL East rival New York Mets. 'He looks like he has command of all his pitches. When he gets behind in the count, he can go to his off-speed pitch. That's a good trait. He takes something off his fastball.'
Hanson got off to a shaky start, giving up six earned runs and three homers in his first big league start. But he learned quickly from his mistakes, putting together a 26-inning scoreless streak - the longest for a Braves rookie since Steve Bedrosian in 1982 - by the end of his first month in the majors.
Since the beginning of August, he's 5-1 with a 1.89 ERA, his only loss coming when he had to come out after only two innings at Philadelphia because of an extended rain delay. Another win was taken away when the bullpen squandered a 1-0 lead after he threw eight scoreless innings at Houston. Hanson has allowed only 34 hits during this stretch, with an eye-popping 52 strikeouts in 472/3 innings.
'He can be as good as he wants to be,' Braves catcher Brian McCann said. 'He knows he belongs here. He makes every pitch for a purpose. He's trying to put every pitch in a spot, not just throw the pitch at the plate. He knows what he's doing.'
Hanson is on another scoreless streak, having gone 17 innings without allowing a run after back-to-back scoreless outings against the Astros and Mets.
'I'm locked in with everything, as far as when to be aggressive and when to try to pick, too,' he said. 'Just learning a lot of these hitters has helped a lot.'
During their run of 14 straight division titles, the Braves were known for their dominant starting pitchers. Maddux, Glavine and Smoltz were the Big Three, but the supporting cast - everyone from Steve Avery to Denny Neagle - wasn't too bad, either.
Led by Hanson and second-year starter Jair Jurrjens (12-10, 2.75), the Braves had assembled one of the best rotations in the majors this season. It probably won't be enough to get them back to the playoffs - an anemic offense left the Braves trailing in the wild-card race with just two weeks remaining - but it does provide hope for the future.
Pitching coach Roger McDowell said it's 'absolutely' too early to start comparing Hanson to some of Atlanta's pitching greats.
'He's got 100 innings in the big leagues,' McDowell said. 'When Chuck James was here and he had 100 innings in the big leagues, it was the Glavine comparison. And Chuck James isn't pitching anymore.'
For Hanson, the biggest test is likely to come next season.
'As with any young pitcher, there's going to be adjustments made to him,' McDowell said. 'It's up to Tommy to figure out those adjustments that are being made against him and what does he need to do to combat them?
'I anticipate that he will be able to do that. He's a bright young man. He understands the game, he understands hitters and does a lot of homework.'