We’re on the cusp of spring training. As such, every player is in the best shape of his life. Some have had LASIK, while others have taken up yoga. A player who didn’t meet expectations the previous season has renewed his commitment to the game, looking to atone for a lackluster performance. You know the drill: it’s February, not much is going on, and a column is due. Insert platitude here.
Phillies left-hander Cole Hamels is a popular choice for the last of these annual narratives. The story practically writes itself: a young ace becomes a postseason hero, pitching his club to a World Series title and becoming the toast of the town in the process. He gets a parade, endorsements and the adoration of an entire city. But when the confetti clears, the ace still has stars in his eyes. His performance dips. Questions about his dedication and focus arise.
It’s a compelling tale. But in the case of Hamels, it’s difficult to find evidence to support it.
In 2008, Hamels posed a 3.09 ERA. This past year, that mark ballooned to 4.32. Many reasons have been offered in an attempt to link a cause to the effect. Perhaps his spring training elbow soreness lingered. Postseason totals included, Hamels tossed 72.1 additional innings in 2008 than he did in 2007. Maybe his curveball (never a huge part of his repertoire) abandoned him, leaving him as a two-pitch hurler. Or, his head wasn’t clear. And so on.
This article by ESPN’s Buster Olney gives the perspective of both Phillies pitching coach Rich Dubee and Hamels himself:
“He is such a perfectionist…his approach wasn’t very good last year. His success won’t come back until his demeanor changes.”
“The more angry you get, it’s that much tougher to execute your next pitch. I think I let [expectations] get to me.”
Those are poignant quotes, suggesting significant changes are necessary for Hamels to return to his 2008 form. I’m not going to speculate about Cole’s demeanor. But in terms of pitching performance, there’s just little separating the celebrated southpaw of 2008 and the scrutinized, slumping Hamels of 2009.
During his banner ’08 season, Hamels logged 227.1 regular season innings, with a 3.72 Fielding Independent ERA (FIP). In a 2009, he threw 193.2 innings, as he got a quicker hook in some starts (6.88 IP per start in ’08, 6.05 per start in ’09). His FIP was…3.72.
In 2008, Hamels struck out 7.76 and walked 2.1 batters per nine innings. This past season, he whiffed 7.81 and walked two per nine frames. Hamels’ batted ball profile scarcely changed at all. He actually had a lower line drive rate in 2009, with a slightly higher percentage of ground balls and more infield flies (data courtesy of Fangraphs):
2008: 21.8 LD%, 39.5 GB%, 10.8 IF/FB%
2009: 20.8 LD%, 40.4 GB%, 12.9 IF/FB%
In terms of his plate discipline stats, the only noticeable change was in his outside swing percentage: Hamels didn’t get as many hacks at pitches off the plate. However, his rate of outside swings was still above-average, and his percentage of contact within the zone (Z-Contact) and overall contact rate were lower in 2009 than in 2008:
2008: 30.8 Outside Swing%, 83.4 Z-Contact%, 76.9 Contact%
2009: 26.8 Outside Swing%, 79.3 Z-Contact%, 75.2 Contact%
(The MLB averages are roughly: 25% for Outside Swing, 88% for Z-Contact and 81% for Contact).
Hamels’ pitch selection didn’t change drastically: he threw a few more four-seam fastballs in place of his curveball and changeup, while seemingly working in an occasional two-seam fastball. The difference in speed and movement between Cole’s four-seamer and signature changeup between the two years wasn’t large. In 2008, there was a 10.5 MPH separation between the heater and the change. In ’09, the separation was 10.2 MPH. In ’08, there was a 4.1 inch difference in vertical break between the four-seam fastball and change. It was 4.3 inches this past year. Hamels’ changeup tailed away from right-handed hitters 4.3 inches more than his fastball in 2008, and four inches in 2009.
So, Hamels’ peripherals, plate discipline numbers and pitch selection hardly diverged between 2008 and 2009. What explains the 1.23 run increase in ERA?
In 2008, Cole had a .270 BABIP, with a 76 percent rate of stranding runners on base. In 2009, he had a .325 BABIP and a 72.1 percent strand rate.
As a fly ball starter who induces a fair amount of pop ups, Hamels has the profile of a pitcher who will generally post a slightly lower than average BABIP. Fly balls, though far more damaging run-wise, fall for hits less often than ground balls. Also, infield flies are just about automatic outs, and Hamels has the 11th-highest infield/fly rate among starters over the past two seasons. Odds are that in 2010, he splits the difference between those extreme BABIP figures over the past two seasons (his career BABIP is .295).
Hamels’ strand rate might also regress back toward his career average next year. Cole has left 74.8 percent of base runners marooned in the majors.
Despite a marked difference in ERA, there was precious little to distinguish the 2008 and 2009 versions of Cole Hamels. In all likelihood, he’ll post an ERA in the mid-to-high three’s next season. That would make for a nice redemption story, though it would be more a case of Hamels’ performance aligning with his skill set.