Cole Hamels is the Unluckiest Man on the Face of the Earth

A friend of mine has convinced both himself and me that he is the unluckiest person on the planet. He takes the poker game Texas Hold’em pretty seriously and has been playing at various card rooms including the casinos in Atlantic City. When I talk to him after a session, I usually get a report about how he was card dead for six hours or some fish donked off all his chips only to catch a two-outer on the river (translation: a bad player bet away all of his money due to poor decision-making only to be rewarded by catching one of the few cards in the deck that would help him).

I saw the misfortune in person when he and I, along with a mutual friend, made the 90-minute drive down to the Borgata in A.C. All three of us were seated at the same table by the floor manager and immediately dealt in. Both myself and my other friend folded our hands. The friend in question looks down at pocket aces, the strongest possible starting hand in Texas Hold’em. It’s been a few months, so I’m fuzzy on the exact details of the hand, but suffice it to say that a lot of money was put into the middle of the table before any of the community cards were dealt.

After the first three community cards were turned over (the flop), both my friend and his opponent’s chips were in the middle. My buddy flipped over his aces while the other guy revealed pocket jacks, a much inferior hand that will win only once every five times against pocket aces and only once every 20 times when the Jacks don’t connect with any of the first four community cards (flop and turn). The jacks, as expected, don’t hit one of the two remaining jacks to make a better hand on the flop or the turn. But, lo and behold, he hit his miracle two-outer on the river, the fifth and final community card. Mind you, this is the first hand my friend saw after sitting down at the table following a 90-minute drive. Suffice it to say, I then bought into his complaints of bad luck. (I realize that it isn’t even close to being on the list of worst bad beats of all-time; it’s just a case of confirmation bias.)

There is, however, one person on the planet whose bad luck could rival that of my friend.

Colbert Michael Hamels.

The 2008 World Series MVP, the lefty who had a 3.08 ERA during the ’08 regular season, is certifiably unlucky. It is said that Eskimos have a bunch of different words they use to say “snow” (which is not true); in Philadelphia, you need only one word for “unlucky” — Hamels. “Ah, poor John, he had no idea his house was built on top of an Indian burial ground. He got Hamels’d.”

Hamels’ unluckiness has, unfortunately, been perceived as a lack of or a decline in pitching skill. However, smart baseball people have found out what pitchers do and do not have control over on the baseball field. For habitual readers of the blog, you have seen me talk about this ad nauseam, but for those newer to Sabermetrics, let me briefly go over this again.

Pitchers have a lot of control over:

  • Their strikeout rate (K/9)
  • Their walk rate (BB/9)
  • Their ground ball and fly ball rates (GB% and FB%), including infield flies (IFFB%)

Pitchers have little control over:

  • The rate of batted balls are converted into hits and outs (BABIP)
  • The rate at which fly balls land beyond outfield fences (HR/FB%)

Let’s take a look at those stats. First, a chart of his strikeouts and walks per nine innings.

Note: K/9 and BB/9 averages are based on 2007-09 data from HEATER Magazine.

Essentially the same in 2008 and ’09. So far this year, he has had a large increase in strikeouts but also in walks. His strikeout-to-walk ratio is at its lowest in his Major League career (2.7; previous low was 3.0 in ’06). While the increase in walks is concerning, he is walking about as many batters as the average pitcher. The increase in strikeouts is encouraging since pitchers with high strikeouts tend to have a lower BABIP (see: Ryan, Nolan).

The following chart displays Hamels’ batted ball rates since 2006.

More encouraging signs: more ground balls and more infield flies. More ground balls means less fly balls which means less net home runs. More infield flies means weaker contact which means less hits (and less home runs).

As the above charts have shown, Hamels has either pitched similarly in 2009-10 as he did in ’08 or he has improved. Yet the results would not lead one to believe this. Have a look at his BABIP:

That is incredibly unlucky! Since pitchers have little control over BABIP, we expect Hamels’ to rest around .300 but it has been nowhere near that level since 2007. In ’09-10, it has been much, much higher than what we would expect despite his showing characteristics that would lead one to believe his BABIP would be lower than normal.

Hamels’ HR/FB% had been relatively normal, just a percentage point or two higher than the average. This year, however, he has been a bit unlucky on fly balls turning into home runs. It could be due to the small sample of 50 innings, but unlucky is unlucky.

Exactly how unlucky has Hamels been?

In 2008, when Phillies fans thought he was the next Steve Carlton, he actually out-performed his SIERA by more than four-tenths of a run. Last year, he under-performed his SIERA by nearly eight-tenths of a run, and has the same gap through 50 innings this year. All that, despite being essentially the same pitcher with the same stuff throughout most of his Major League career.

The verdict is in: Cole Hamels is the unluckiest man on the face of the Earth. Even my friend would agree.

As always, a gentlemanly doff of the cap to the great FanGraphs for the data.