Analyzing Cole Hamels’ Struggles

In 2009, when Cole Hamels had the worst season of his career and was partially to blame for his team’s World Series loss, many fans were ready to bail on the young lefty. But a deeper analysis showed he was really just the victim of bad luck, that his performance didn’t speak to his results and that he would bounce back soon enough. He more than bounced back thanks to refinement of his curve and the addition of a cut fastball. Between 2010-12, Hamels established himself as one of the top-three left-handed starters in baseball.

It has been a different story in 2013. Hamels is struggling again but this time, he is not the victim of bad luck; his misfortune falls squarely on his shoulders. To get a broad sense of his problems, he is carrying a 4.02 xFIP and 4.04 SIERA, just a shade below his 4.34 ERA. His 21 percent strikeout rate is his lowest since 2009 and his nine percent walk rate is a career-high. He is averaging 1.4 home runs per nine innings, also a career-high. Overall, it is difficult to find a culprit — he hasn’t lost velocity and he is using his pitches more or less at the same rates. He is pitching in the same proportion of hitter-friendly and pitcher-friendly counts as well.

The real issue is how Hamels is using his pitches. Let’s break it down pitch-by-pitch.

Four-Seam Fastball

Though I said that Hamels’ struggles aren’t misfortune-related, it is hard to see his fastball stats and not brush them aside and expect a regression. Right-handed hitters are hitting his four-seamer to the tune of a .475 wOBA, but have a .356 BABIP. Last year, those figures were .320 and .288, respectively. Hamels’ location of these fastballs mimics that of last year. The biggest difference is that Hamels has thrown his four-seamer in four percent more hitter-friendly counts than in 2012, but that is not terribly significant since right-handers have a .125 BABIP on fastballs in hitter-friendly counts this year.

The one thing you can fault him for with the fastball is that five of them have gone for homers out of seven total, though his location on them hasn’t been awful.

Change-Up

Though Hamels is still finding success with his change-up, he hasn’t been able to throw it in the strike zone as often. He has placed it in the zone just 41 percent of the time this year compared to 50 percent in 2012. As a result, hitters are swinging at it less (55 percent, down from 63 percent). Specifically, the change-up is in the bottom-third of the strike zone seven percent more often and has been away from the hitter (the outer-third) 14 percent more often. Hitters are still swinging and missing as often, they’re just not swinging as much in aggregate.

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Cutter

Against right-handed hitters, the cut fastball has been an asset to Hamels. He likes to throw it inside but out of the strike zone, waist-high or higher. As you can see in the charts below, Hamels is finding way too much of the plate this year. Two of his seven home runs have been on cutters that didn’t cut, to Justin Upton and Chris Valaika.

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Right-handed hitters are posting a .364 ISO on Hamels’ cutters this year compared to .112 last year, and a .372 wOBA compared to .287. They only swung at it 50 percent of the time last year, but that rate has jumped up to 62.5 percent since 5 percent more of his cutters are finding the strike zone.

Curve

Though Hamels has been using it more down and away this year, the curve has otherwise brought him similar results. More importantly, Hamels has thrown only 49 overall, so it is a small sample and is not a featured part of his arsenal.

The overall theme is that Hamels is having trouble with the strike zone — his cutter is finding it too much, and his change-up too little. The change is Hamels’ best pitch, but if hitters are able to lay off of it, he becomes pedestrian. As an example, look at the locations of Hamels’ change-ups in his latest start in which he surrendered two runs over eight innings while striking out six and walking none.

The change-up was in the strike zone 65 percent of the time. As a result, Marlin hitters swung at it 65 percent of the time, putting it in play just five times for five outs.

Hamels still struggled with cutter location, but it was progress nonetheless. Aside from the Valaika home run, Marlins hitters put Hamels’ cutter in play four times, three times for outs.

Overall, he is not having a good season by DIPS standards, but it’s nothing the 29-year-old left-hander can’t overcome. In the first half of the 2010 season, Hamels walked eight percent of the batters he faced, but was able to cut that rate by two percent in the second half. Given his track record of running roughshod over National League competition, it is difficult to see his struggles through seven starts persisting over the final 25.

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15 comments

  1. matt

    May 06, 2013 12:45 PM

    Should of kept J.A. Happ

  2. JM

    May 06, 2013 02:34 PM

    how much of this can be attributed to Chooch not calling the game?

  3. Phillie697

    May 06, 2013 02:56 PM

    @JM,

    Chooch calling the game can make Hamels not throw over the plate?

  4. amarosucks

    May 06, 2013 07:40 PM

    Hamels is the least of this teams’ worries. He is one of the few things about this team that will be fine.

    Fire Amaro

  5. the Philly sports desert

    May 06, 2013 08:10 PM

    Bill, I have to question this articles validity. You seem to preach the need for specific innings pitched and AB’s for STATS to matter (on a regular basis) except when it doesn’t fit your agenda. You do say, there is a good chance he’ll correct this but let’s reset the scope of our examination. The reason we are even having this conversation is not due to his last five (5) games pitched but due to the Phils offense being particularly putrid during those five games and providing a total of 9 runs with two games in which he lost 2-0. 5 of the runs came in the one game he won. 0,0,1,3 (not many wins with that type of support) Granted, his BB’s are up and his K’s are down but if you remove the first two games he has pitched 35 innings, 9 earned runs, 21Hits, 12 BB’s (6 in one game),33 K’s, a WHIP of 0.97. I would imagine SIERRA and xFIP are somewhere close to his ERA of 2.31 over this time frame. 4 of his 7 HR’s came in the 1st two games. I have a tough time getting worked up over Cole’s stats, he is not the reason the Top 3 pitchers have been a disaster. BABIP .244 so there is a regression up which could be a problem if he doesn’t get the walks under control.
    Cliff Lee has been more troublesome as his K’s are down and he is much more a contact pitcher with a weak inf def and outfield defence. His BABIP is a respectable .295 for the season but he has given up a lot of hits after the first two starts of the season.
    Give me a way to correct the pathetic offense and the Phils will role when CH and CL pitch but DY doesn’t seem to have been the quick fix. fingers crossed we don’t end May 12 games under .500.

  6. BobSmith77

    May 07, 2013 12:42 AM

    Nice analysis Bill. These are the kind of posts I really appreciate on Crashburn Alley.

  7. JM

    May 07, 2013 08:12 AM

    @Phillie697 – Yes, there is framing & catcher position with the umpire that directly affects the calls. This doesn’t even factor in the game that is called by the catcher. Chooch calls his own game, Kratz gets signals from the dugout, or Cole shakes him off 7 times per at bat (yes, some of those are intentional). There is a reason Halladay bought a cy young trophy for Chooch…he helped him pitch better…

  8. Phillie697

    May 07, 2013 10:55 AM

    @JM,

    Yes, framing helps a pitcher. But Hamels’ problem is he’s throwing the pitch over the middle of the plate, and if he needs a specific catcher to show/tell him that that’s bad, then he’s got bigger issues that I would be very concerned about.

  9. JM

    May 07, 2013 02:44 PM

    I don’t know that he needs a specific catcher, but certainly a better receiver than Kratz…

  10. JM

    May 07, 2013 02:45 PM

    and the mustache…he was lights out with the ‘stache

  11. Phillie697

    May 07, 2013 02:50 PM

    JM,

    “Throwing is hard. In order to deliver a baseball to a batter, a pitcher has to release the ball at exactly the right point in the throw. A timing error of half a millisecond in either direction is enough to cause the ball to miss the strike zone.

    To put that in perspective, it takes about five milliseconds for the fastest nerve impulse to travel the length of the arm. That means that when your arm is still rotating toward the correct position, the signal to release the ball is already at your wrist. In terms of timing, this is like a drummer dropping a drumstick from the 10th story and hitting a drum on the ground on the correct beat.”

    I surmise the lack of a ‘stache is causing said half a millisecond timing error for Hamels, resulting in this crappy start of a season.

  12. LTG

    May 07, 2013 03:15 PM

    Cuz JM was being serious?

  13. Phillie697

    May 07, 2013 03:26 PM

    Sarcasm FAIL.

  14. rellis

    May 07, 2013 06:29 PM

    Perhaps all these “experts” should drop Cole a line and let him know what he’s doing wrong so he can win some more games and fine tune his skill. I am sure he will be thrilled with the advice! Next you can let the batters know that it’s okay to score a run or two when Cole pitches. Where is Mitch Williams when you need him?

  15. GrammarNazi

    May 09, 2013 07:22 AM

    @ Matt: should HAVE, not should of. Jeez.

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