Cole’s New Wrinkle

Scott Lauber, a member of the army of Phillies scribes camping in Clearwater for spring training, blogged about the new and improved Cole Hamels. Detailed is the off-season training regimen he followed, his reflection on the struggles he endured in 2009, and a talk with Rich Dubee.

Something caught my eye, though:

Dubee said Hamels may spend more time developing a cutter/slider. Hamels said he has spoken with Cliff Lee, Steve Carlton and John Wetteland about their cutter. “Hitters made the adjustment, and now, it’s my time to make the adjustment,” Hamels said.

I have an urge to purchase a plane ticket and fly down to Clearwater, just to run up to Cole and yell, “Be yourself!” As we found out a week and a half ago, the same Cole Hamels from 2008 showed up in ’09 but experienced vastly different results, mostly attributable to luck. Changing his stripes seems reactionary and somewhat foolish. He has dominated at every level of baseball he’s played — why switch horses mid-stream?

Upon further review, however, it does make sense. Consider the Nash equilibrium:

Amy and Bill are in Nash equilibrium if Amy is making the best decision she can, taking into account Bill’s decision, and Bill is making the best decision he can, taking into account Amy’s decision.

To relate that to Hamels, he has to mix up his pitch repertoire to keep the hitters honest so that they can’t sit on any one particular pitch. The more he relies solely on his fastball and change-up (and a very ineffective and rarely used curveball), the more he will develop trends that the hitter will spot. Thus, the hitter will change his approach to suit.

Hamels faced 814 batters in 2009 and threw 3,116 pitches, an average of about 4 pitches per batter. With two types of pitches and four balls to throw, there are 16 possible combinations. With three types and four balls to throw, there are 64 possible combinations. With four pitches, there are 256 possible combinations. You can imagine why adding another effective pitch to the arsenal would be a plus for any pitcher, especially a starting pitcher who has to face the same hitters multiple times.

The caveat, of course, is that the new pitch has to be thrown effectively. As we have seen throughout his Major League career, Hamels has thrown a curveball but it hasn’t been a boon to his repertoire. Last year, FanGraphs valued his curve at -1.37 runs per 100 and Cole threw 327 of them for a total of about -4.5 runs.

Cole’s new pitch needs to be one that will complement his current repertoire. A change-up thrown by a left-hander is most effective against right-handed hitters as it will break down and away. To left-handed hitters, the change-up will break down and in, which is normally a bad area in which to loiter. Click here and watch the change-ups that Eugenio Velez and Ryan Garko swing at for examples of its effectiveness against opposite-handed hitters.

This holds up to statistical inquiry as Hamels has a reverse platoon split, which means Hamels pitches better against opposite-handed hitters. He has a career 3.67 FIP against right-handers and a 4.29 FIP against left-handers. Additionally, he allows about 6.5% more home runs per fly ball (17.1% to 10.5%) to left-handers.

As such, this new pitch should be one that neutralizes left-handed hitters. A slider or a cutter, which he may work on as described above, would suffice. The cutter is a hybrid of a slider and a fastball and is frequently utilized by pitchers such as Roy Halladay and Andy Pettitte.

If Cole ditches his curve, a slider would be a better pitch to develop since he would still have a pitch with significant lateral movement. If he sticks with the curve, then the cutter would be a welcome addition.

In the end, it’s all about minimizing the ability for opposing hitters to guess what’s coming. He has essentially been a two-pitch pitcher but with some hard work and dedication can become a four-pitch pitcher, making him exponentially more unpredictable.