Cole Hamels is back, ladies and gentlemen. What did he do to bounce back from a tumultuous 2009 season (and April 2010)?
Just as he did nothing to contribute to the swift descent following his impeccable 2008 in which he won the World Series MVP award, the Cole we have watched through 13 starts (12 if you exclude his rain-shortened outing in Atlanta on June 1) has similarly remained constant.
Sure, he added a cut fastball but it has been his worst pitch according to the pitch type values found on FanGraphs. He has actually reduced the use of his three other pitches in favor of the cutter and he still finds himself 11th in the National League in SIERA (among pitchers with at least 65 IP). In his latest start against the Boston Red Sox in which he allowed only one run over seven innings, 65% of his pitches were fastballs and 27% were change-ups. In fact, the fewer cutters Cole has thrown, the more successful he has been.
Hamels has beefed up his strikeout rate, averaging nearly one per inning and about one more per nine innings than in ’09 and ’08. His walk rate has hurdled above three per nine but it hasn’t meant much since he is stranding nearly 83% of base runners. The big key to his success — and this should come as no surprise if you have been reading this blog for a while — has been a regression in batting average on balls in play (BABIP).
In 2008 when he had tremendous success, his BABIP was .270, much lower than the traditional .300. In ’09 when he was painful to watch pitch, his BABIP was .325. This year, which has thus far met his ’08 and ’09 seasons somewhere in the middle, his BABIP is .308. Since pitchers don’t have much control over BABIP, the regression is simply due to Phillies’ defenders turning batted balls into outs and good ol’ fashioned luck. The extra strikeout per nine has been icing on the cake, as is his newfound dominance over left-handed hitters.
What else could have contributed to his success?
I noted after his second start in April that he may be toying around with release points but Pitch F/X guru Harry Pavlidis was helpful in reaching the conclusion that the machines were calibrated differently as the two starts were at two different ballparks. The calibration, though, seemed to only affect vertical measurement. Hamels has shifted his release point towards the left-handed batter’s box as the following graphs will illustrate:
The release point hasn’t made much of a difference though because hitters are making the same amount of contact and swinging and missing at similar rates as last year.
Others will note the increase in velocity, as his fastball hit 94 MPH or higher 46 times in his most recent start in Boston. While it was great to see, his fastball hasn’t been like that all year as the velocity chart from FanGraphs illustrates.
For the third straight year, you can chalk up most of Hamels’ performance to BABIP luck. Just imagine how good he’ll be when his HR/FB rate (over which pitchers also have little control) regresses down from 16.5% to the more appropriate 10-11%. He has the potential to reach Nolan Ryan territory if he can kick the Twilight habit.