The Cole Hamels Legacy

Bryan Bullington. Chris Gruler. Adam Loewen. Clint Everts. Zack Greinke. Jeff Francis. Joe Saunders. Scott Kazmir. Those eight names were the pitchers taken ahead of Cole Hamels in the 2002 draft. All, with the exception of Greinke, failed to live up to expectations: Gruler and Everts never made the Majors; Bullington and Loewen couldn’t hack it at the Major League level; and Francis and Saunders have been roughly replacement-level lefties. This is, sadly, the case for most years, showing just how hard it is to find and cultivate elite starting pitching via the draft. The following chart, showing the career rWAR of Hamels and the pitchers taken ahead of him, drives that point home.

The “golden era” for the Phillies, as I like to call the 2007-11 seasons, was bolstered by incredibly savvy drafting in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s. Between 1998-2002, the Phillies spent first round draft picks on Pat Burrell, Brett Myers, Chase Utley, Gavin Floyd, and Hamels. They also found Jimmy Rollins in the third round of the ’96 draft, Ryan Howard in the fifth round in ’01, Michael Bourn in the fourth in ’03, J.A. Happ in the fourth in ’04, and Jason Donald in the fourth in ’06. The list goes on. Incredibly, the Phillies more often than not drafted a Major League-quality player in the early rounds of every draft.

However, the Phillies had two picks in particular that defined their franchise: Utley in 2000 and Hamels in ’02. Without either of these players, the great drafts the Phillies had are almost irrelevant. Utley has compiled 50.3 rWAR in his career, which puts him in Hall of Fame discussions, and Hamels is over 25 rWAR before the age of 29. It is quite incredible to think about now, in 2012, just how far the Phillies’ lefty hurler has come. Battling immaturity issues while running roughshod over the Minor Leagues between 2003-06 — he broke his hand in a bar fight prior to the ’05 season — the Phillies organization and the fans saw ton of potential, praying that he could put it together to help end the 25 years of misery the city had experienced since the 1980 title.

Hamels has one of the most intriguing Minor League pages because he had a 1.43 ERA but also 201 total innings spread out over four seasons. He missed most of the ’04 season with an elbow injury and most of ’05 with a broken hand due to the aforementioned bar fight. Entering ’06 with a grand total of 51 innings pitched in the previous two years, it was simply a matter of getting back on the horse, but Hamels did far more than that. With a 1.04 ERA over seven starts, the Phillies were convinced he was ready and brought him up to the Majors to make his debut in Cincinnati against the Reds on May 12. He was predictably nervous, walking five, but held the Reds scoreless on one hit while striking out seven in five innings. Shortly thereafter, a shoulder injury put him briefly on the DL, and Hamels finished out the season with a 4.17 ERA. With a two-pitch arsenal and in his rookie season, that was just fine for the Phillies. He had four double-digit strikeout games and ten starts with a game score of 60 or better, giving fans plenty of reasons to be excited.

Hamels put himself on the map in 2007, finishing with a 3.39 ERA and a K/BB ratio in excess of 4.0. Most importantly, he was a big reason why the Phillies ended their 14-year playoff drought, earning a bid in the Division Series against the white-hot Colorado Rockies. The 23-year-old Hamels was given the Game One nod from manager Charlie Manuel, allowing three runs in six and two-thirds innings. While it wasn’t the cleanest start — he walked four — and the Phillies went on to get swept, it was great experience for the still-learning Hamels as he went into ’08.

By that time, the league was aware of his trickery: roughly 90 percent fastballs and change-ups, but it didn’t matter. Hamels was even better in ’08, ending the year with a 3.09 ERA. And, to use a baseball cliche, he was the Phillies’ workhorse, throwing 227.1 innings. Once again, the Phillies relied in large part on his arm to make it into the post-season. In Game One of the NLDS, this time against the Milwaukee Brewers, Hamels threw eight brilliant shut-out innings, striking out nine, walking only one, and allowing a paltry two hits. The Los Angeles Dodgers had slightly more success against him, but not nearly enough as Hamels won his Game One and Game Five starts in the Championship series, allowing two runs in seven innings and one run in seven innings, respectively.

For the first time since 1993, the Phillies were back in the World Series. The up-and-coming Tampa Bay Rays were the last obstacle between them and their championship trophy, and if they were going to get it, it was going to be with Hamels’ arm. The 24-year-old took the hill in Tampa Bay for Game One, but the bright lights and pressure didn’t faze him one bit. Hamels once again went seven strong, allowing two runs as the Phillies went on to yet another victory, bringing them to 4-0 in Hamels’ starts. The Rays took Game Two and the Phillies battled back for Games Three and Four, putting the Phillies one victory from glory in front of their fans in the City of Brotherly Love, and it just so happened that Hamels was slated for what turned out to be the final game.

Forecasts called for heavy rain on October 27, but the game started at the scheduled time. Hamels was battling temperatures in the low 40’s but held the Rays to one run through five innings. As he took the mound for the sixth, the rain was pouring at a frenetic pace, muddying the dirt in the infield and quickly making every baseball slick. Everyone watching wondered when the tarp would be spread out over the field, but the Phillies’ ground crew stayed put. Nevertheless, Hamels quickly retired the first two Rays even as the cold rain stung the back of his neck. B.J. Upton stepped to the plate, and Hamels could see light at the end of the tunnel. Get through Upton, and the Phillies are in a great spot going into a rain delay.

Upton, however, worked the count 2-2 before softly lining a change-up through the middle. Shortstop Jimmy Rollins was playing him severely to pull, so it was an easy infield single for Upton even though Rollins bobbled the ball due to the awful weather conditions. Upton then stole second base, somehow able to keep his footing in the swampy infield. The Rays finally had a bit of life as they attempted to bridge a one-run deficit before the rain made the field unplayable (as if it hadn’t already). Pena got the count to 2-2 before lacing a line drive to left field. Pat Burrell charged the ball and made a throw home, but couldn’t get a good grip and the ball weakly bounced in to catcher Carlos Ruiz as Upton scored the tying run. Hamels retired Evan Longoria to end the inning, and it would be the last of Hamels’ 2008. The game went into delay and resumed on the 29th, when the Phillies finally emerged victorious for their first championship since 1980.

Hamels was named World Series MVP and his life was forever changed. He had become everything everyone had hoped for: an elite pitcher that could lead his team to a championship, and he did that before the age of 25. The off-season, however, was a test for him and one he ultimately failed. With his newfound fame, Hamels ran the media gamut, including an appearance on The Late Show with David Letterman. That media time ate into his preparation time, and it showed in 2009. While almost all of his struggles could be attributed to BABIP woes, there were plenty of questions among fans and the media about his mental makeup and his resolve. Although the Phillies reached the World Series once again, it wasn’t on the arm of Hamels, who finished the regular season with a 4.32 ERA and was just as unreliable in the post-season. Famously, after his mediocre Game Three start in the World Series against the New York Yankees, Hamels said he “can’t wait for it to end”, with “it” referring to his season.

Fans revolted and the media heaped piles and piles of criticism onto Hamels when the Phillies fell to the Yankees in six games, entering the off-season with a mountain of disappointment. Many wondered if the Toronto Blue Jays would accept Hamels in a trade for Roy Halladay. Fortunately, the Phillies held onto their lefty. Hamels went back to the drawing board in the off-season, adding a cut fastball and refining his curve ball. He had, to that point, been a two-trick pony, throwing a fastball or a change-up nearly nine out of every ten pitches. Evolving was not only prudent for him, but necessary.

The hard work didn’t immediately pay off as Hamels finished April 2010 with a 5.28 ERA. Was this it for Hamels? From World Series hero to zero in a matter of 18 months? As a few number crunchers heeded caution, Hamels began to turn it around. From May through the end of the season, Hamels posted a 2.68 ERA, averaging nearly a strikeout per inning and his BABIP plummeted to .285. Overall, Hamels ended 2010 with a 3.06 ERA, a career-best. The Phillies were once again back in the post-season, but Hamels had ceded his status as “staff ace” to Halladay, who the Phillies had acquired during the off-season. Halladay threw baseball’s second post-season no-hitter (the other being Don Larsen) in Game One of the NLDS against the Cincinnati Reds, but Hamels came about as close to matching that performance as anyone could have realistically expected. In Game Three, Hamels clinched an NLCS berth for his team with a complete game shut-out, striking out nine, walking none, and scattering five hits. The Phillies, though, ran into the buzzsaw that was the San Francisco Giants. Hamels didn’t have a great performance in Game Three, allowing three runs (two earned) in six innings, but the series loss was completely on the hands of the offense, which scored 20 runs in six games.

Although Hamels had completely rebounded, the Phillies weren’t yet satisfied with their starting pitching. GM Ruben Amaro added Cliff Lee back into the mix, giving the Phillies a deadly rotation of Hamels, Lee, Hamels, and Roy Oswalt. Nevertheless, Hamels flourished in 2011, reducing his ERA to 2.79. This time, Hamels refined his control, setting a career-low walk rate and a career-high K/BB ratio. For the fifth year in a row, the Phillies were in the post-season, but it was short-lived. Although Hamels shut out the St. Louis Cardinals over six innings in Game Three en route to a victory, the Phillies dropped the series in five games in disappointing fashion. Along with Lee and the Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw, Hamels was among the top-three best lefties in the league, finishing in the top-five in Cy Young balloting for the first time in his career.

This brings us to 2012. The Phillies had kicked around the idea of getting Hamels signed to a contract extension, but nothing serious ever came about despite Hamels’ repeated public statements that he would love to stick around in Philadelphia. The Phillies had very recently committed a lot of money to other players, including Howard ($125 million), Lee ($120 million), Halladay ($60 million), and Jonathan Papelbon ($50 million). With over $104 million committed to only six players in 2013, finding payroll room to both pay Hamels appropriately and adequately fill out the rest of the roster was a daunting scenario. So Hamels went into the season with the knowledge it could be his final year in Philly.

He has not disappointed. Still featuring baseball’s best, most-lethal change-up, Hamels currently has a 3.20 ERA and has been one of the very few consistently-good Phillies. He made the NL All-Star roster for the third time in his career and should be expected to be a Cy Young candidate at the end of the season. There is virtually no chance the Phillies make the post-season and the July 31 trading deadline is less than three weeks away. Starting next on July 15, Hamels could have between one and three more starts before Amaro has to make a tough decision on Hamels’ and his team’s future. At 28 years old and a decorated MLB veteran, it is very defensible to sign the lefty to a hefty contract, but given some of the more financially-questionable decisions in the past, there simply may not be enough wiggle room for Amaro to manage his payroll.

In the event this is the last hurrah for Hamels, the Phillies will have had roughly 1,300 innings of some of the best baseball that has been pitched in this millennium. Since 2007, Hamels’ first season in which he started the year in the Majors, he has the eighth-most rWAR:

Player WAR IP Age ERA ERA+ Tm
Roy Halladay 33.2 1267.0 30-35 2.87 146 TOR-PHI
CC Sabathia 31.6 1306.0 26-31 3.11 141 CLE-TOT-NYY
Justin Verlander 27.3 1250.2 24-29 3.39 128 DET
Cliff Lee 25.2 1094.2 28-33 3.24 128 CLE-TOT-PHI
Felix Hernandez 25.1 1236.2 21-26 3.07 133 SEA
Mark Buehrle 25.1 1162.1 28-33 3.77 118 CHW-MIA
Matt Cain 24.1 1200.2 22-27 3.19 127 SFG
Cole Hamels 23.2 1147.0 23-28 3.30 127 PHI
Provided by View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 7/12/2012.

He even ranks eighth in xFIP in the same time period:

Pitcher K% BB% xFIP
Roy Halladay 20.6 % 4.0 % 3.11
Tim Lincecum 26.3 % 9.1 % 3.25
Zack Greinke 23.3 % 6.1 % 3.30
Felix Hernandez 22.3 % 7.4 % 3.33
Brandon Webb 19.6 % 7.2 % 3.34
Josh Johnson 22.5 % 7.4 % 3.35
CC Sabathia 22.2 % 6.1 % 3.36
Cole Hamels 22.9 % 5.9 % 3.36

To have had that much production from Hamels, when he could just as easily have flamed out like Bryan Bullington, is incredible. To have led his team to a championship at the age of 24 is incredible. To take it upon himself to learn from his past mistakes and evolve, the way he did from 2009 to 2010, is incredible. To have dealt with one of the harshest fan bases and critical media with aplomb is incredible. He has been everything an organization and a fan base could have ever asked for.

Maybe Hamels does end up signing that contract extension. After all, there have been serious discussions surrounding it. Even if they don’t sign him to an extension now and do end up trading him, the Phillies can still sign him as a free agent in the off-season. So this eulogy-of-sorts may very well be premature. Still, it is worth reflecting on Hamels’ time in Philadelphia, being left in awe of just how much he accomplished in such a short time and at such a young age. The Phillies, and we as fans, were very lucky to have had him, and should wish him nothing but the best wherever he ends up in the future.

Thank you, Cole Hamels. Thanks for everything.