Joel Hanrahan excelled as a closer with the Pittsburgh Pirates in a playing career ended by two Tommy John surgeries. In 2011 and 2012, he compiled the best two-year saves total in Pirates history with 76. From the spring of 2011 to the 2012 All-Star Game, he allowed just 23 earned runs in 102 2/3 innings.
Joel Ryan Hanrahan was born on October 6, 1981, in Des Moines, Iowa. He was the second son of Robert Hanrahan, a food service sales industry worker, and Pamela (Engler) Hanrahan, a homemaker. His older brother was named Mark.
“I learned good work ethic from my father, who went to work every day and still had time to work with my brother and I after work and never complained about it or taking us to tournaments,” Joel explained. “My mom was also a hard worker and would even catch my brother and I’s bullpen in the backyard and throw BP (Batting Practice) to us in the batting cages. Her favorite Mother’s Day was taking us to the fields to throw us BP.”1
The Hanrahans resided in Des Moines until 1983 but then moved to Florida. Jacksonville was home from 1983 to 1990, followed by Gainesville, where Joel attended Terwilliger Elementary School from 1990 to 1994 and Fort Clarke Middle School from 1995 to 1997.
Between 1990 and 1997, Hanrahan (who batted and threw right-handed) played Little League and Babe Ruth League baseball. When asked by his second-grade teacher what he wanted to be when he grew up, he replied, “a major-league ballplayer.” His teacher strongly suggested that he have a backup plan. “That’s what I tried to work for,” he recalled.2
Brother Mark influenced Joel’s baseball career. “We always competed with each other,” Joel remembered, “and he was older than me, so I wanted to be on all the all-star teams like him.” When Mark later got a baseball scholarship at Iowa State University, Joel wrote that it “motivated me to get better” and “try and get a scholarship as well.”3 As an 11-year-old in 1993, Joel caught 14-year-old Mark for the Babe Ruth League Pirates, winners of the Gainesville championship. “No one else in Little League could catch him,” Joel recollected, “so they’d move me up to his level.”4
Gainesville attorney Stephen Mercadante, who coached Joel on Pony League all-star teams, recognized his potential as a 13-year-old pitcher. “Joel had natural instincts for the game. You could see he knew how to pitch. He could locate and change speeds.”5 Nolan Ryan, Ryne Sandberg, Carlton Fisk, Chipper Jones, and John Smoltz were Joel’s favorite major-league players. Hanrahan did not model his pitching style after any particular major leaguer but enjoyed watching Smoltz because “he was a starter/reliever, kind of like I was.”6
In 1997, the Hanrahans returned to Iowa to be closer to Joel’s grandmother. Hanrahan participated in baseball, basketball, and golf for Norwalk Community High School from 1997 to 2000. He could already throw a fastball in the high 90s and emerged as a pro pitching prospect in 1999 after a Perfect Game showcase in Florida. In 1999, he won 7 and lost 4 with a 2.76 ERA, making the Class 3A, All-State First Team. His most memorable Norwalk game under coach Al Lammers came in the season opener as a senior against Southeast Polk High School when he pitched very well and clouted a home run. When Joel “asked the scouts if they liked my HR, they laughed at me and said I pitched good.”7
The previous November, Hanrahan has signed a letter of intent to pitch for the University of Nebraska, However, after graduating from Norwalk Community High School in 2000, he entered the Major League Baseball (MLB) draft. The Los Angeles Dodgers selected the 6-foot-4 inch, 250-pounder in the second round as the 57th overall pick. Hanrahan signed for around $650,000 and joined the Great Falls (Montana) Dodgers in the Pioneer League (rookie ball).8
It took Hanrahan seven minor-league seasons and a switch in organizations to reach the major leagues at age 25. In 2002, he hurled a no-hitter for Vero Beach (Class A) against the Jupiter Hammerheads and fanned Miguel Cabrera for the last out.9 Hanrahan posted a 10-4 record with a 2.43 ERA for Jacksonville (Class AA) in 2003, being named the Southern League’s Most Outstanding Pitcher and making the Southern League All-Star Team. Dodgers minor-league pitching coaches Kenny Howell and Marty Reed especially helped him. According to Hanrahan, Howell was “always positive and believed in me,” while Reed was “a tough guy” and had “an aggressive approach to pitching.”10
When the Dodgers granted Hanrahan free agency October 15, 2006, the Washington Nationals signed him on November 6. “After six years, it was time to move on,” he believed. He started the 2007 season with Columbus (Ohio) of the Triple-A International League. The Nationals called him up in July 2007 because of injuries to their starters11 Except for a couple of brief injury rehab assignments, he was in the big leagues for good. As a minor-leaguer, Hanrahan recorded 67 wins and 49 losses, started 182 of 193 games, and surrendered 939 hits and 531 runs in 984 1/3 innings.
Hanrahan’s major-league debut came July 28 against the New York Mets when he surrendered three runs, four hits, struck out seven, and walked one in six innings. “I hit a triple in my first at-bat off Mike Pelfrey” and “struck out Jose Reyes for my first out on three pitches,” he recalled. The Nationals triumphed, 6-5, but Hanrahan was not involved in the decision.
His first major-league victory occurred in a 12-1 triumph over the St. Louis Cardinals on August 4. He allowed just one run, six hits, and struck out three in 5 2/3 innings, and clouted a two-run double. He remembered facing Joel Pineiro, noting “two Joels starting a game,” and David Eckstein, whom he had watched play for the University of Florida.12
On September 23, 2007, Hanrahan pitched the historic last game ever played at Washington’s RFK Stadium, which had become the home of the transplanted Montreal Expos in 2005. He held the Philadelphia Phillies scoreless for four innings, striking out seven, including Ryan Howard, 2006 NL MVP. Washington prevailed, 5-3, but Hanrahan did not figure in the decision, having been lifted in the fifth with the score tied 1-1.13 In 11 starts, Hanrahan went 5-3 with a high 6.00 ERA.
The Nationals, then the major leagues’ youngest and worst team, converted Hanrahan to a reliever in 2008. They made him closer after trading Jon Rauch to the Arizona Diamondbacks July 22. General manager Jim Bowden cited Hanrahan’s “overpowering fastball” and “good slider.”14 Ray King, LaTroy Hawkins, and Chad Cordero helped Hanrahan considerably in making the switch.15
The Nationals lost nine consecutive games after Rauch departed. Thus, Hanrahan — who had never saved a game at any level — did not record his first save until August 3 against the Cincinnati Reds. Hanrahan relieved in 69 games in 2008 with 9 saves, a 6-3 win-loss record, 3.95 ERA, and 93 strikeouts in 84 1/3 innings.
In 2009, Hanrahan struggled. His marks were 1-3, a 7.71 ERA, and 50 hits in 34 innings with just five saves through June 30. He was then traded with Lastings Milledge to Pittsburgh for Nyjer Morgan and Sean Burnett. “I wish I could have played better in Washington,” he reflected. “My first years were okay but 2009 was a big struggle.”16 Hanrahan realized, “No matter who was at the plate,” everything he threw “was away.” The hitters knew that “so they’d lean out over the plate, and I was giving them a lot of hits.”17
Although acknowledging that Hanrahan was “struggling on the surface,” Pirates general manager Neal Huntington stressed that “our scouts saw a plus fastball, a plus slider” and “a guy who looked a little shaken in his confidence.” He attributed much of Hanrahan’s statistical record to “misfortune” and said, “We also saw a pitcher who could get a lot of strikeouts.”18
Hanrahan, nicknamed “The Hammer,” excelled in his new locale with a fresh outlook. During the rest of 2009, he struck out 37 batters in 33 relief appearances, boasted a career-best 1.72 ERA despite walking 20, and surrendered no home runs in 31 1/3 innings. “The move worked out for the best,” Hanrahan affirmed in 2010. “I was struggling with Washington.”19 Pirates manager John Russell agreed, saying, “There was a lot of pressure put on their bullpen. It was openly made public that they needed to pitch better. I think it snowballed on him and he lost some confidence.”20 Hanrahan reminded himself, “Don’t put any pressure on yourself. Ever since I’ve had that mentality, it’s worked out a lot better for me.”21
Norwalk High School retired Hanrahan’s #3 uniform in 2010. That year Hanrahan enjoyed a very strong season. He began as an eighth-inning set-up man for closer Octavio Dotel and had six saves sharing closing duties with Evan Meek after Pittsburgh traded Dotel on July 31. He achieved a 4-1 record with 18 holds and his control was better: in 72 appearance and 69 2/3 innings, he cut his walks down to 26. He ranked fourth among National League relievers in strikeouts with a career-best 100 and allowed only six home runs for a club that lost 105 games. The key for him was pounding the inside corner with his 96 miles per hour fastball. Hanrahan’s velocity and improved control gave the Pirates stability at the back end of the bullpen. He relied on unflinching confidence, short memory, and vivid personality. Like many closers, he entered home games to calling-card music — in his case, heavy-metal band Slipknot.
“You (need) to go out there and relax and believe in yourself” and “just trust your stuff,” he recognized.22 In retrospect, Hanrahan also observed, “I think a change of scenery helped and pitching coach Joe Kerrigan was a big help as well. He showed me that he cared right away.”23
Hanrahan thrived under Ray Searage, who became Pirates pitching coach in August 2010 and had shared a similar major-league experience. “I really liked Ray,” he reflected. “He got around seven years in the bigs, gets hurt, and then starts coaching. It’s the same with me.”24 “Searage was a great pitching coach, who kept it simple and fun and always had a great attitude.”25
In 2011, new Pirates manager Clint Hurdle named Hanrahan sole closer. He rose to the challenge, attributing his effectiveness to his “aggressiveness and challenging hitters.”26 He was able to get quick outs by throwing strikes with his fastball. He said that he “tried to simplify the game.”
“It’s really exciting,” Hanrahan observed that May. “I’m locating my fastball better and I’m keeping my pitches down. I’m pitching to contact and letting my fielders do the job behind me.” Pirates starting pitcher Charlie Morton affirmed, “Ninety-nine times out of 100 he will get the job done. We have supreme confidence in him.”27
During the first half of the season, he was arguably the senior circuit’s most dominant closer, converting all of his club-record 26 save opportunities. He was named Delivery Man of the Month for June. Through the end of that month, he boasted the best ERA and second-best walks and hits per inning ratios among the NL’s top 10 save leaders, allowing just two runs over 20 appearances.28 He deservedly made the National League All-Star team. Pittsburgh entered the All-Star break at 47-43. A beaming Hanrahan declared, “The city is thrilled, excited.” He added, “We’ve been feeding off their energy, especially in the late innings.”29
Although the Pirates faded in the second half, finishing at 72-90, Hanrahan was named the team’s 2011 MVP. He ranked fifth in the National League with a career-high 40 saves, converting 90 percent of his opportunities. He allowed only one home run in 68 2/3 innings, and although he lost four of five decisions, he compiled a stellar 1.83 ERA.
In January 2012, Hanrahan signed a one-year contract for $4.1 million, a $2.7 million pay raise. The same month, he married Kimberly Donovan (who had grown up in Massachusetts as a Boston Red Sox fan) in Las Colinas, Texas. They had met in Washington, D.C. in 2009 when Hanrahan pitched for the Nationals.30
Hanrahan made his second consecutive All-Star team in July 2012. At that point, he ranked third in the National League with 20 saves in 22 opportunities and crafting a 2.10 ERA, 3-0 record, and 35 strikeouts in 31 innings. Mike Williams and José Mesa were the only previous Pirate pitchers with 20 saves before the All-Star break. Between the spring of 2011 and the 2012 All-Star Game, he had recorded 63 saves. “To get voted in by my peers, again, is a huge honor,”31 said Hanrahan, once again beaming.
Along with his darting fastball and daunting slider, Hanrahan was known for his demeanor. “He’s one of those guys who has a good mound presence,” San Francisco catcher Buster Posey observed. St. Louis outfielder Matt Holliday noted, “He has found his niche and confidence,”32 Besides compiling a 5-2 record and 2.72 ERA in 2012, Hanrahan struck out 67 and walked 36 in 59 2/3 innings. He saved 36 games in 63 appearances and blew only four save opportunities. Pittsburgh finished 79-83, a 22-game improvement since 2010, equaling the franchise’s best record in two decades.
On December 26, 2012, Pittsburgh traded Hanrahan and Brock Holt to Boston for pitchers Mark Melancon and Stolmy Pimentel and infielders Jerry Sands and Iván de Jesús, Jr. The Red Sox had finished last in the American League East in 2012, largely because of a struggling bullpen in 2012. They were impressed with Hanrahan, who’d recorded two saves against them in 2011 in interleague play. He recognized, “that opened their eyes a little bit” and considered it “exciting” to “play in a big market like that.”33
Hanrahan signed a $7.04 million contract. He pitched on Opening Day but missed two weeks in the second half of April with a hamstring injury. On May 2, he recorded his 100th career save in a 3-1 triumph over the Toronto Blue Jays. Five days later, however, he suddenly walked off the mound in the ninth inning against the Minnesota Twins after throwing a pitch. An MRI disclosed that Hanrahan had suffered a damaged flexor tendon in his right elbow. A few days later, Dr. James Andrews performed season-ending Tommy John and flexor tendon surgeries. In nine games, Hanrahan compiled an 0-1 record, four saves in six opportunities, and 9.82 ERA for Boston. The Red Sox released him October 31.
The Detroit Tigers signed Hanrahan for $1 million. After spending 2014 on the disabled list trying to rehab, Hanrahan inked a minor-league contract with Detroit October 31. But the Tigers released him on March 4, 2015, after doctors found a torn ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow.34 It was a crushing blow for Hanrahan, who underwent UCL reconstructive surgery on the elbow on March 18. He grew tired of the rehab process not producing the results he’d expected; in November 2016, Hanrahan retired as a player.
“My arm’s telling me that it’s not going to get back to where it needs to be to be competitive in professional baseball,” he realized. “There’s nothing I can change. I did everything I could.” He added, “I’ve met a lot of great people and had a lot of fun.”35
In 362 games spanning seven major-league seasons, Hanrahan recorded 22 wins, 18 losses, a 3.85 ERA, 441 strikeouts, and 188 walks in 404 2/3 innings, 100 saves, 23 blown saves, and 30 holds. David Wright was the most difficult batter for him to get out because “he never tried to do too much and had a great approach.”36
Since 2017, Hanrahan has coached pitchers in the Pittsburgh organization. “Baseball is what I know, baseball is what I love,” he enthused. “I’ve kind of lived every scenario when it comes to pitching. So I feel like I’ve got a lot of knowledge on the mental side that can help guys.”37
After being assistant pitching coach for the Class-A West Virginia Black Bears (New York-Penn League) in 2017, Hanrahan served as pitching coach for the West Virginia Power (South Atlantic League, Class A) in 2018 and Altoona Curve (Eastern League, Class AA) in 2019. His Altoona pitchers led the Eastern League in shutouts (18), complete games (six), and double plays induced (116).
When the 2020 minor-league baseball season was canceled because of COVID, Hanrahan worked with players at the Pirates’ alternate site in Altoona. In 2021, he became pitching coach for the Indianapolis Indians (Class AAA East, Midwest Division).
Hanrahan’s goals as a pitching coach are “to help pitchers get to” and “stick in the big leagues. I want as many people to experience it as possible,” he explained.38 Dario Agrazal, James Marvel, Max Kranick, and Blake Cederland were among the first pitchers he coached to reach the major leagues. Marvel observed, “He cares about each guy individually as people and he wants them to succeed.”39
Hanrahan tries “to be a lot like Searage” as a pitching coach.40 He “blends old-school teaching with new-era thinking.”41 He embraces both the analytical part of the game and when to steer away from the data.
Joel and his wife, Kimberly, reside in Lewisville, Texas. They have one son, Ryan, born in 2013, and one daughter, Cora, born in 2016. The Hanrahans regard “being around the game and people” as “a history lesson” and relish “the traveling and the different experiences.”42 Ryan and Cora both love baseball. Ryan, according to Joel, enjoys “experiencing all the different cultures,” and is “halfway fluent in Spanish” because of his friendship with Domingo Robles. Cora “took her first steps on a baseball field.”43
Last revised: October 12, 2021
Special thanks to Joel Hanrahan for his input.
This biography was reviewed by Bill Nowlin and Rory Costello and fact-checked by Kevin Larkin.
In addition to the sources cited in the Notes, the author also consulted Baseball-Reference-com and other Des Moines Register articles.
1 Email correspondence with Joel Hanrahan on August 9 and 16, 2021.
2 Andrew Logue, “Joel Hanrahan looks and pitches like an all-star,” Des Moines Register, July 9, 2012: 3C.
3 Hanrahan to Porter, August 16, 2021.
4 Dejan Kovacevic, “Comfort Zone,” Pittsburgh Post Gazette, August 28. 2010.
5 Kevin Brockway, “Pittsburgh Pirates closer Joel Hanrahan, 29, lived in Gainesville from second to eighth grade before moving back to his native Iowa,” Gainesville Sun, July 12, 2012.
6 Hanrahan to Porter, August 16, 2021.
7 Hanrahan to Porter, August 16, 2021.
8 Randy Peterson, “Norwalk teen gets $650,000 signing bonus,” Des Moines Register, June 25, 2000: 3C.
9 Hanrahan to Porter, August 16, 2021.
10 Hanrahan to Porter, August 16, 2021.
11 David Driver, “Iowan would like to raise the curtain in D.C.,” Des Moines Register, September 25, 2007: 4C.
12 Hanrahan to Porter, August 16, 2021.
13 Steven C. Weiner, “September 23, 2007: Washington Nationals Win in RFK Stadium Farewell,” SABR Games Project. https://sabr.org/gamesproj/game/september-23-2007-washington-nationals-win-in-rfk-stadium-farewell/
14 David Driver, “Saving the game one day at a time,” Des Moines Register, August 3, 2008: 6C.
15 Hanrahan to Porter, August 16, 2021.
16 Hanrahan to Porter, August 16, 2021.
17 Kovacevic, “Comfort Zone.”
18 Kovacevic, “Comfort Zone.”
19 David Driver, “Hanrahan regaining strength, confidence,” Des Moines Register, March 7, 2010: 5C.
20 Driver, “Hanrahan regaining strength, confidence.”
21 Andrew Logue, “Norwalk All-Star ‘one of tougher at-bats’ in MLB,” Des Moines Register, July 10, 2012: 3C.
22 Sean Keeler, “Hanrahan embraces role as Pirates’ bullpen ace,” Des Moines Register, February 25, 2011: 5C.
23 Hanrahan to Porter, August 16, 2021.
24 Cody Potanko, “Pittsburgh Pirates: through the Eyes of a Coach with Joel Hanrahan” https://rumbunter.com/2020/06/08/pittsburgh-pirates-joel-hanrahan/
25 Hanrahan to Porter, August 16, 2021.
26 Hanrahan to Porter, August 16, 2021.
27 David Driver, “Hanrahan settling in as one of top closers,” Des Moines Register, May 19, 2011: 5C.
28 “Norwalk’s Hanrahan slams door again,” Des Moines Register, June 15, 2011: 1C.
29 Brockway, “Pittsburgh Pirates closer.”
30 Hanrahan to Porter, August 16, 2021.
31 Andrew Logue, “Norwalk All-Star ‘one of tougher at-bats’ in MLB.”
32 Logue, “Norwalk All-Star.”
33 Bryce Miller, “Iowan to enter hot spotlight of AL East,” Des Moines Register, December 27, 2012: 5C.
34 Tommy Birch, “Iowan Joel Hanrahan’s career at a crossroads,” Des Moines Register. March 5, 2015: 1C.
35 Tommy Birch, “Norwalk native Hanrahan retires after 14 seasons,” Des Moines Register, November 16, 2016: 1C.
36 Hanrahan to Porter, August 16, 2021.
37 Tommy Birch, “Norwalk’s Hanrahan becomes a coach,” Des Moines Register, February 23, 2017: 1C.
38 Hanrahan to Porter, August 16, 2021.
39 Tommy Birch, “Hanrahan trying to return to MLB as coach,” Des Moines Sunday Register, May 7, 2021: 5B.
40 Hanrahan to Porter, August 16, 2021.
41 Birch, “Hanrahan trying to return.”
42 Theo Mackie, “Ex-Pirates All-Star Joel Hanrahan flourishing as Altoona Curve’s pitching coach,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, July 12, 2019.
43 Potanko, “Pittsburgh Pirates.”