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.
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.
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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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.
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.