Cole, Don’t Change A Thing

(Well, there’s a couple things you could change…)

Another day, another poor start for Cole Hamels. Following what seemed to be a turn-around performance against the Florida Marlins last Sunday, Cole allowed six runs on four home runs in six innings, despite striking out seven batters and walking only one last night against the Arizona Diamondbacks.

The first three innings went very smoothly. In the first inning, Cole retired the side in order on three ground ball outs. He then struck out the side in the second, allowing only a single. Cole retired the D-Backs 1-2-3 again in the third with one ground out, fly out, and strikeout apiece. In case you’re counting, that’s four ground outs, four strikeouts, and one fly out — a great distribution of outs.

Cole unraveled in the fourth inning, struggling with location. With a runner on first with one out and Mark Reynolds (a.k.a. the right-handed Adam Dunn) at the plate, Hamels threw a four-seam fastball that was letter-high right down the middle. Reynolds fouled it off. Hamels came right back to the same exact location with a cutter, which Reynolds promptly deposited well beyond the fence in left field.

Adam LaRoche then worked the count to 3-2 after six pitches and three foul balls. All six pitches were at least waist-high, and so was the seventh, a waist-high change-up right down the middle. It was not surprising to see LaRoche — who routinely hits Phillies pitching — hit a home run down the right field line.

Hamels allowed a single to Chris Young before striking out Cole Gillespie, bringing up the D-Backs’ #8 hitter in catcher Chris Snyder. Snyder only needed one pitch — a knee-high cutter right down the middle — to notch the Snakes’ third home run of the inning, capping a five-run fourth.

The batted balls in the fourth went: fly out, soft line drive single, fly ball home run, fly ball home run, line drive single, strikeout, home run, ground out. Two line drives, three fly balls, one ground out, and one strikeout.

Kelly Johnson led off the bottom of the fifth with a solo home run off of Hamels that increased the D-Backs’ lead to four runs at 6-2. It wasn’t really a bad pitch by Hamels and more so a good piece of hitting by Johnson.

The batted balls in the fifth went: fly ball home run, fly out, line drive single, fly out, fly out. Cole added another two strikeouts and a fly out in his sixth and final inning.

All told, Hamels allowed ten fly balls (including three line drives) and six ground outs (44% fly balls,  19% line drives, 38% ground balls) along with the seven strikeouts, giving him a SIERA of 2.74 for the game as opposed to the 9.00 ERA. Of the ten fly balls, four were home runs, giving him a HR/FB% of 40%. We know that pitchers can’t control how many home runs they allow other than by controlling their rate of fly balls. While Hamels clearly wasn’t at his best last night, it also will not be par for the course — he will not have a 40% HR/FB rate every game.

That said, Hamels’ pitch selection was peculiar, as the following graph will illustrate:

His fastball and curve use has increased and his change-up use has decreased in each start. In other words, between his first and most recent start, Hamels has decreased the use of his best pitch by over 26% in favor of lesser quality pitches. While he has utilized his cutter in his last three starts, he is doing so at the expense of his change-up and that is not a winning strategy.

Still, Hamels has been unlucky. His 5.11 ERA is much higher than his retrodicted 3.13 SIERA. While he has been more BABIP lucky (.275), his HR/FB% (30.4%) is about three times higher than it should be. Meanwhile, his strikeout and walk rates are great at 9.5 and 2.2 respectively — a better than four-to-one ratio.

If Cole wants to get back on the winning track, he doesn’t need to change much — he just needs to ride out yet another wave of bad luck, be a little more precise with his location, and to stop using his other pitches at the expense of his change-up. That’s really it. Based on events proven to be within a pitcher’s control — strikeouts, walks, and GB/FB rates — he has pitched very well. With a few minor tweaks, he can put himself in a better position where he won’t be resting his fate on rolls of the dice.