The Transformation of Cole Hamels

Cole Hamels‘ last start, in which he allowed one run and struck out 11 Mets in seven innings, signaled his return into the good graces of fans in Philadelphia. Cole was the whipping boy after a disastrous start to the 2009 season, through the post-season in which it was believed that he wished to quit before the World Series was over, to even two weeks ago. Fans and media alike memorized their talking points and used them ad nauseam. Everything he did was used against him, from appearing in TV commercials to carrying a dog in a backpack to doing a photoshoot with his wife to being from California and having a nasally voice. Whatever it was Cole did, it irked Philadelphians.

Funny thing, that winning. It can change irrational behavior rather quickly.

A grassroots campaign of sorts was started during the second half of the ’09 season, aiming to deflect the criticism of Hamels by pointing out the similarities between his ’08 and ’09 efforts. Myself, Matt Swartz of Baseball Prospectus, Paul Boye of Phillies Nation, and Dash Treyhorn of The Fightins — among many others — tried to rationally explain to fans that Cole simply had an unlucky season, that it was okay to keep faith in the southpaw. Given the heavy use of Sabermetrics, many people entrenched themselves in their anti-Hamels dogma even further, and all of a sudden there was a rift in the Phillies community, exemplified by “The Endless Debate” video made by @LONG_DRIVE.

Cole’s bad luck continued into the start of the 2010 season as he had a 5.28 ERA through his first five starts. The bleating reached a crescendo when Hamels allowed four home runs in six innings of work against the Arizona Diamondbacks on April 23. Although Roy Halladay was extremely good, as expected, Hamels’ struggles made the fan base yearn for Cliff Lee, viewed as unfairly and unnecessarily deported from the organization during the winter.

On May 17, the Phillies had just emerged victorious over the Pittsburgh Pirates 12-2 and extended their lead in the division to five games with a 24-13 (.649) record. The Phillies, despite that stupid Cole Hamels, were well on their way to another playoff berth. And then it happened. Yes, it.

The offense went into a tailspin. The Phillies were shut out five times in an eight-game span, including an entire series against the New York Mets. For once, the Phillies struggled and Hamels wasn’t to blame. And the offense wasn’t just bad, it was anemic. The scapegoat went from Hamels to Greg Dobbs and Jayson Werth.

While people were pointing fingers and shouting expletives at the offense, something magical happened: Cole Hamels righted his ship. From his next start sans offense (May 21) to present, Hamels has made 15 starts and pitched a total of 95 and two-thirds innings. He struck out 97 batters (9.2 K/9), walked 26 (2.4 BB/9) and compiled a 3.01 ERA. Of course, he’s only 3-6 in that span of time, which of course has been used against him. However, in those 15 games, his offense only provided him with 52 runs (avg. 3.5 per game) but 10 of those came in one game on June 19 against the Minnesota Twins (and the Phillies lost).

Hamels’ last two starts (21 strikeouts in 14 innings) have put him back on the map, so to speak, but his success had gone largely unnoticed given the offensive woes, the Werth drama, Halladay’s success, and the acquisition of Roy Oswalt.

So what is the big difference between 2009 and ’10?

Many — especially those who are well-versed in the Sabermetric defenses of Hamels — will point to his BABIP. It currently sits at .304 compared to .325 last year. The .021 difference, over 550 batted balls, accounts for about 12 hits. While the 12 hits can certainly make an impact, it is not quite as large as the .270 to .325 jump from ’08 to ’09 that had everybody selling his stock.

Base State of Hamels HR
Year Empty Runners On
2008 61% 39%
2009 58% 42%
2010 73% 27%

BABIP does have an effect on a pitcher’s strand rate. An average strand rate is around 72%. Cole’s, from ’08-10 was 76%, 72%, and 82%. Clearly, he has been better at stranding runners but it isn’t entirely due to BABIP; it is also due to a bit of home run luck and due to a legitimate skill. Only six of the 22 home runs Hamels has allowed (27%) have been hit with one or more runners on base and only one was hit with two or more runners on base. A pitcher doesn’t have a whole lot of say in when he gives up his home runs, be it with the bases empty or with runners on. So Hamels has been a bit fortunate on the timing of his gopher balls.

Additionally, Hamels has bolstered his strikeout rate substantially. The past two seasons, he had been averaging under eight strikeouts per nine, still an above-average rate. However, this year, he has skyrocketed his punch-outs to an average 9.2 per nine innings. Strikeouts are great for pitchers for obvious reasons: the ball isn’t put in play and thus the safe/out result is not subject to a roll of the dice; and pitchers who strike out a lot of hitters tend to have a lower BABIP.

To what can we attribute Hamels’ strikeouts, despite the fact that he is inducing exactly the same amount of swings-and-misses this year as he did last year (12%)? Hamels has added 2 MPH of velocity onto his four-seam fastball, nearly the same amount on his change-up, and he’s introduced a cut fastball that has accounted for 13% of his pitches. Cole now has four pitches that keep hitters guessing as opposed to the three (and oftentimes two, given his mediocre curve) he had last year.

Hamels Pitch Selection, 3-1
Type 2010 2009
Four-seam 82% 67%
Change-up 14% 31%
Curve 2% 2%
Cutter 2% 0%

Cole has found himself in pitcher-friendly counts (0-1, 0-2, 1-2) two percent more often, which amounts to about 16 more pitcher-friendly counts over 814 batters (the amount he faced in ’09). He is also not giving in when the count is 3-1. Hitters slugged .846 after a 3-1 count against Hamels in ’09; they are slugging only .280 this year.

While none of these changes are large in magnitude, when combined with the other little changes, they add up to a pitcher perceived as much improved. Really, Hamels is very similar to the guy we’ve seen the past few years and SIERA agrees:

2007: 3.20 (9th in MLB)

2008: 3.52 (15th in MLB)

2009: 3.55 (18th in MLB)

2010: 3.28 (8th in MLB)

Cole Hamels is one of the best pitchers in baseball. Nobody can deny that now.