Jason Hammel has long been a pitcher with the skills to succeed, even if his efforts on the hill never quite led to the production that it was thought he could bring (I wrote about Hammel back in February of 2011 in The Strikeout: Starters). Last season, his first in Baltimore after three seasons in Colorado, he was well on his way to finally fulfilling those expectations. Alas, he was limited to just 118 innings due to injury (his knee bothered him for long stretches of the year and he had surgery on the wheel in July) which leaves his outlook heading into 2013 about as fuzzy as it has always been.
Why would I bother talking a guy who has a 42-51 record and a career 4.78 ERA? That’s a fair question. Each year, from 2008-11, Hammel had an ERA of at least 4.33 and a WHIP of 1.39, and his record in that time was 31-34. However, he had just enough punchouts, kept the walks under control, and kept the ball on the ground just well enough to be of interest. Add in the Coors Field factor, we all know how it’s not a hospitable place to perform if you are a pitcher, and there was some thought that he could have a little more success in Baltimore even though he would be moving to the AL to pitch in arguably the toughest division in baseball (the AL East). So what happened last year in Baltimore? Some stuff that was better than anyone could have possibly hoped for.
Hammel had never struck out more than 7.14 batters per nine innings and he owned a career mark under 6.50 heading in to last season. Given that, it was pretty shocking to see his K/9 mark swell to a dominating 8.62. He threw his fastball harder than ever before, a mph harder than his career average, and that helped a bit. He also generated more swings on pitches outside the strike zone than ever before as his 29.7 percent mark was one percent better than his previous seasons best (oddly, his 44.6 swing percentage, the number of pitches he threw that batters swung at, was a six year low). Also, batters were able to post a 77.3 percent contact rate on all pitchers, light years below the 84 and 85 percent marks of 2010-11. Are those growth moves sustainable?
Hammel walked 3.20 batters per nine innings last season, a slightly elevated number for a guy with a 3.12 career mark. Add the walks to the strikeouts and you end up with a 2.69 K/BB ratio, well ahead of his 2.11 career mark but still well below the 3+ mark he posted in 2009-10.
The move out of Colorado certainly helped him to keep the ball in the yard as his 0.69 HR/9 mark was a career best and 30 percent below the 1.01 mark he owns for his career. Was his HR/F ratio to blame? Was it some ridiculously low number last season? Nope it wasn’t as it was 9.7 percent, within less than a percent of his career mark of 10.5. That leaves the explanation as to why the homer total fell at the foot of the amount of fly balls he allowed in his first season back in the AL (he pitched for the Rays from 2006-08). Hammel, somehow, held batters to a 28.1 percent fly ball rate. That’s extremely low, even for an extreme ground ball arm, and lo and behold that was what Hammel was last season. After six years never posting a ground ball rate of 47 percent, Hammel was able to generate a mark of 53.2 percent last season leading to a 1.89 GB/FB ratio. Some perspective here.
Hammel for career: 46.1 ground ball rate, 1.37 GB/FB, 6.58 K/9
Hammel for 2012: 53.2 ground ball rate, 1.89 GB/FB, 8.62 K/9
Felix Hernandez for ’12: 48.9 ground ball rate, 1.71 GB/FB, 8.65 K/9
Wow is right. Hammel shifted from solid for six years to dominating last season, so much so that his numbers compare favorably to King Felix, the highest paid pitcher in baseball history (if his 7-years, $175 million deal stands up as there are some concerns about his elbow right now).
Can growth like that happen for a pitcher in his seventh season in the league? Sure it’s possible. He might develop a new pitch, a new motion, just be “on” more times than not, learn a new way to attack hitters or might be moved to a ballpark that is more conducive to his pitching style. All of that could help explain how a pitcher improves. But ask yourself this question. How many times do you remember a guy going from six years of league average performance to becoming a borderline star overnight? How many times does that happen to a fella who pitches in the AL East? As if the questions about the division and performance weren’t enough, how would you feel about the guy if he was coming off an injury marred season that required surgery to the players knee? There’s a lot to like here with Hammel if the price is right (over in the NFBC world his ADP is 69th among starting pitchers). Make sure the cost is fair before you invest too heavily as there is always the chance that his knee holds him down or, more likely, he isn’t able to hold on to all the gains he flashed last season.
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By Ray Flowers