Cole’s Curious Conundrum

This subject has been covered ad nauseam already, but I’ve had this written for a while now and I don’t want it to go to waste. Originally, it was going to be published in an e-book, but that fell through. As a result, you get to enjoy the content at no cost. If you frequent the blog, the concepts need no introduction, but I originally wrote it for a less Sabermetrically-inclined readership.

Cole’s Curious Conundrum

If you were conscious at any point from the second half of the 2009 regular season through the playoffs, surely you heard the incessant armchair psychoanalysis pertaining to Cole Hamels, the Phillies’ left-handed pitching phenom and MVP of the ’08 World Series. There was something askew with him the whole season. He spent too much time in the off-season posing for magazines, appearing on television shows and lending his persona in advertisements. He got cocky; he wasn’t focused; he was immature; he lacked the mental strength to go through another 162-game grind after reaching the pinnacle of baseball. Right?

The funny thing is, the Cole of ’09 wasn’t much different than the Cole of ’08 — if there is any difference at all. Sure, his ERA was nearly one and a quarter runs higher and his WHIP increased by .2, but aside from superficial statistics like those, Cole appeared to be surprisingly… himself.

I know that is hard to believe after watching him achieve mediocrity in his four starts during the ’09 playoffs, where he never once finished the sixth inning — something he did each and every time in his previous six post-season starts. However, the data analysis that will follow proves that the Cole you saw last year was essentially the same guy that took the bump two years ago. Hopefully, upon reading this article, your Hamels-related fears are assuaged.

The Surface

Hamels won 10 games and lost 11, the very definition of mediocre. However, we all know by now the fallacy of the won-lost record. Along with the 21 decisions, Hamels had 11 no-decisions. In those ND’s, the team went 6-5 and Hamels allowed 26 runs in 66 and one-third innings (3.53 ERA). The bullpen, meanwhile, allowed 17 total runs (including unearned) in 14 innings (10.93 RA) in the no-decisions that resulted in Phillies losses.

Hamels’ ERA overall was ugly but it is reasonable to think that if the bullpen had been more helpful to him that he would not have been exposed to such harsh public criticism from the media and fans. While the expectations are different, Joe Blanton finished 2009 with 12 wins and an ERA above 4, yet fans were ambivalent about the prospect of trading him to create payroll space during the off-season.

BABIP-Hop

When we analyze pitching data, we have to discriminate between what pitchers can and cannot control. On the statistic BABIP (batting average on balls in play), J.C. Bradbury of the blog Sabernomics writes, “While pitchers may have some ability to prevent hits on balls in play, the effect is small. And any effect a pitcher does have is reflected within DIPS metrics.” (DIPS stands for Defense-Independent Pitching Statistics, which removes the effect of the pitcher’s defense.)  Essentially, if a pitcher isn’t any different from one year to the next, but has a significant change in his BABIP, we can attribute that difference to luck, for lack of a better word. This is the BABIP equation, taken from its Wikipedia entry:

Hamels in 2008 enjoyed a .270 BABIP, which is about thirty points under the general average of .300. He finished with a 3.08 ERA and arguably deserved consideration for back-end votes in National League Cy Young balloting. 2008 was very good for Hamels and really, really good for his Phillies.

Last season, that BABIP went way up to .325. For as far below the average it was in ’08, it was nearly equally as far above in ’09. Hamels finished with a 4.32 ERA. Instead of singing his praises, Phillies fans were pondering an appropriate ranking for him among the most disappointing Phillies of ’09. During the off-season, some fans even speculated that the Phillies should consider trading him as a means to both acquire Roy Halladay and keep Cliff Lee.

Is BABIP entirely to blame for Hamels’ failures last year? No, not entirely, but it looks like it had a huge impact on his fortune the past two seasons. That becomes more evident when we utilize ERA estimators such as FIP, xFIP, and tRA. Before the actual numbers, we need to get the equations out of the way. Don’t worry, you won’t need your calculator as FanGraphs.com does all the heavy lifting.

  • FIP = (HR*13+(BB+HBP-IBB)*3-K*2)/IP
  • xFIP = ((FB*.11)*13+(BB+HBP-IBB)*3-K*2)/IP
  • tRA (the FanGraphs version) “involves assigning run and out values to all events under a pitcher’s control and coming up with an expected number of runs allowed and outs generated in a defense and park neutral environment”.

Hamels’ results:

2008 2009
FIP 3.72 3.72
xFIP 3.63 3.69
tRA 4.63 4.51

When we account for what Hamels himself is directly accountable for, we see that he has been the same pitcher the past two seasons. In fact, according to FIP, he has been exactly the same. xFIP has him as very slightly worse last season while tRA has him as slightly better.

Characteristics

It’s not enough to simply point to a few ERA estimators and wrap up the analysis. Thanks to the plethora of statistics available at FanGraphs, we can actually look at the characteristics of Hamels from year-to-year. First, a look at his strikeout, walk, and home run rates per nine innings:

2008 2009
K/9 7.76 7.81
BB/9 2.10 2.00
HR/9 1.11 1.12

Nearly identical numbers. Moving onto  his batted ball rates:

2008 2009
LD 21.8% 20.8%
GB 39.5% 40.4%
FB 38.7% 38.7%
HR/FB 11.2% 10.7%

Hamels allowed the same amount of fly balls and “turned” 1% of his line drives into ground balls. Additionally, he allowed 0.5% fewer home runs per fly ball. If anything, opposing batters were performing worse against him. It should be noted that it is highly likely that the small changes in those rates are due to random fluctuation, not to anything inherent to Hamels’ skill.

Finally, a look at the characteristics of the batters Hamels faced:

2008 2009
O-Swing 30.8% 26.8%
O-Contact 60.8% 63.2%
Z-Swing 67.7% 69.8%
Z-Contact 83.4% 79.3%
Swing 50.4% 49.4%
Contact 76.9% 75.2%

The prefix O- stands for pitches outside of the strike zone and Z- stands for pitches inside the strike zone.

What this table tells us is that opposing batters were swinging less outside the zone 4% less from ’08 to ’09, yet made contact nearly 2.5% more. However, those same hitters swing nearly 2% more at pitches inside the strike zone yet made contact nearly 4% less. Overall, Hamels was in the strike zone 0.6% less in ’09 than in ’08.

The Repertoire

The following graphics, using Pitch F/X data, will display each of Hamels’ three pitches from both an overhead and a side view from 2007-09. Click each image to view a larger version.

The above graphic simply combined the three previous graphics into one, so it is easier to spot the differences. Frankly, there’s not a whole lot of difference. There are subtle differences but that would be due to randomness as no one pitcher’s averages would be identical from one year to the next.

The graphic below shows the release point of each of Hamels’ pitches from 2007-09.

Again, not a lot of difference. If anything, Hamels was more consistent with his release points in 2009 than in ’08. Check out the messy release points beyond the positive 1.5 line on the horizontal axis in 2008.

We have looked at BABIP; ERA estimators; strikeout, walk, and home run rates; batted ball rates; and Pitch F/X data. The only significant difference found is his BABIP. It is conclusive that Hamels was just about the same pitcher in his amazing 2008 season as he was in his disappointing ’09.

Does this mean that Hamels will be as good in ’10 as he was in ’08? No, it does not. For as unlucky as Hamels was with BABIP last year, he was about as lucky in ’08. Hamels’ true talent level lies somewhere in between the two seasons. This is echoed by the projections on FanGraphs.com. Bill James puts Hamels on a 3.43 ERA in ’10; CHONE at 3.80; and the fans at 3.51. For comparison, the following pitchers had ERA’s in the 3.40-3.60 range last season: Jon Lester, Justin Verlander (who finished third in AL Cy Young voting), Ubaldo Jimenez, and Joel Pineiro.

Hamels is fine, folks! Don’t give up on him because of his 2009 showing.

Special thanks to Harry Pavlidis of Cubs F/X and The Hardball Times for the compiling the Pitch F/X data and graphs.

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8 comments

  1. Klaus

    February 08, 2010 06:19 PM

    Unfortunately your analysis fails to consider Hamels’ various physical defects: his high cheekbones, soft black hair and nasally voice–all of them permanent impediments to baseball success.

  2. Mike

    February 09, 2010 10:28 AM

    Great write-up. One thing that isn’t captured in these stats, however, is the nature of those balls in play. For example, as far as BABIP is concerned, a ground ball is a ground ball is a ground ball. however, we all know that there is a huge difference between a soft grounder to short and a sharply-hit ground ball up the middle. That’s not necessarily a question of luck or defense, and the outcomes are at least partially within the pitcher’s control. So if batters were putting balls in play off Hamels at about the same rate in 2009 as in 2008, the difference might be in the quality of those balls in play.

  3. SchmidtXC

    February 09, 2010 12:21 PM

    Fantastic article…

  4. Bill Baer

    February 09, 2010 03:28 PM

    the difference might be in the quality of those balls in play.

    Mike, that’s true but that’s a small slice of his balls in play, and everything else remained constant. His LD%/GB%/FB% didn’t change much at all (not even close to being statistically significant). I think that if he was being hit harder, we would see a significant change in batted ball splits. Even his infield fly ball percentage stayed constant.

  5. MG

    February 09, 2010 07:14 PM

    Tale of two halves:

    Cole’s peripheal numbers for the entire year were the same but his numbers in the 1st half vs. 2nd half were night and day. Although his K/9 numbers were similar and his BB/9 was actually a bit better in the lst half, all of his other numbers really were notably worse in the 1st half (ERA, WHIP, H/9, BAA, BABIP, %LD).

    Hamels was still a bit injured and not in shape as the season began. Went on to have a horrendous April 2009 (easily the worst month of his young career so far) and it took him a while to round back into shape.
    Hamels actually found his groove back by May and pitched generally better through out the year except some struggles in August and his really poor postseason.

    One of the more interesting things to note too was that some trends that have been persistent in his career so far (pitches better at CBP than on the road, pitches notably better during night vs. day starts) became even more magnified and stark last year.

    He was poor on the road and if Hamels started a day game last year it was a good possibility the Phils were going to lose.

  6. MG

    February 09, 2010 07:38 PM

    Other interesting things to note about Hamels (he wasn’t the same pitcher if you really comb through the data):

    - He struggled a bit more vs. right-handed batters last year across the board.

    - Hamels has always been a guy that dominates hitters if he gets 2 strikes on a hitter and last year was no exception although he wasn’t quite as dominate as previous years.

    - Where Hamels notably struggled last year when when he faced a hitter for the 3rd time in a game and he when ran a deeper count especially on counts with 3 balls. It seemed Hamels had troubling finishing guys off last year a bit more and the numbers bare that a bit.

    - Hamels got notably poorer results with his 4-seem fastball and curveball last year according to Fan Graphs pitch value numbers. His changeup also wasn’t quite as dominant.

    - Hamels was a bit unlucky with RISP. That likely will even out a bit more this year and work a bit more in his favor.

    My bet is that hitters have made some adjustments to Hamels based upon scouting reports and know that if they can get ahead in the count they are really like to see his 4-seem fastball. They can sit on it a bit more and drive it.

    His curveball also remains a real work in progress and I remember several times last year where it hung and got blasted out of the park. Still a pitch that isn’t he throws all that much or apparently has much confidence in either.

    Hamels apparently did start to work in a bit more of a 2-seem fastball too last year. It is going to be very interesting in the early going to see what Hamels throws because it always takes several starts before Hamels’ velocity runs to the low 90s. Does he use an inordinate amount of changeups or does he mix in more curveballs/2-seem fastball until his 4-seem fastball has a bit more giddy up in May.

  7. MG

    February 09, 2010 07:52 PM

    Swing breakdowns kind of confirm too that hitters weren’t chasing as much pitches (changeups) out of the zone as much last year and my bet is that they were making more contact on 4-seem fastballs that Hamels located slightly out of the zone.

    Basically, if a hitter can lay off of Hamels’ changeup that is out of the zone early in the count (1st or 2nd pitch) he really has a good shot against Haemls because he likely will see a 4-seem fastball in the zone.

    If you think about it, it is pretty amazing that Hamels has had such success at the MLB level so far as a starter while only throwing 2 pitchers (4-seem fastball and changeup). Demonstrates just how damn good his changeup is although if he doesn’t develop a 3rd solid pitch, he likely has maxed out as a starter.

    Personally, I would love to see Hamels be able to master that 2-seem fastball a bit more or even pick up the cutter that Halladay has really mastered and become an important part of his pitching arsenal.

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