You wouldn’t know it by his 5-13 record, but Cole Hamels has been nothing short of dominant since the calendar turned from June to July. Over his last eight starts, the lefty has compiled a 1.98 ERA in 59 innings, the tenth-best ERA in that timespan among all Major League starters (fourth among NL SP). He lowered his overall ERA to 3.65, a respectable number considering it was teetering on 5.00 at the end of May.
There hasn’t been one overwhelming change that has led to Hamels’ recent hot streak; rather, it has been a combination of small improvements that collectively added up into the top-tier starting pitcher the Phillies signed to a six-year, $144 million contract extension on July 25 last year. Unfortunately, the changes don’t lend themselves to terribly in-depth analysis, so this will be quick to get through.
- Fewer walks: In Hamels’ first 17 starts, he walked 7.3 percent of batters and threw only 48.5 percent of pitches in the strike zone. In his most recent eight starts, Hamels has cut his walk rate down to 3.5 percent and tossed 53.3 percent of pitches in the zone.
- Fewer home runs: Hamels surrendered 13 home runs over his first 17 starts, but just three over his last eight. On a per-flyball basis, 11.1 percent of fly balls were home runs before, and only 4.5 percent after.
- BABIP: There has been a 21-point drop in BABIP from .310 to .289. How much of that is improved luck and how much is due to better pitching is debatable. Nevertheless, it is a small but noticeable difference that has helped improve his numbers.
All of the other telltale signs of success have actually gone in the other direction or haven’t changed at all. He is getting slightly fewer strikeouts and swings-and-misses overall; his velocity has declined; and he has been locating more pitches over the middle of the plate. There have been no meaningful changes in pitch selection, nor has there been any change in his batted ball distribution.
Just by eyeballing his game logs, his season really started to turn around with his May 20 start against the Marlins. To that point, Hamels had struck out more than six batters in a game just twice in nine starts and he walked three or more batters in four of nine starts. Additionally, nine of the 16 home runs he allowed this season occurred in his first nine starts. Since then, he has struck out more than six batters in eight of 16 starts and walked fewer than three in 14 of 16.
Any way you slice it, Hamels has for a while been elite, it just wasn’t that obvious by traditional metrics. His 3.69 xFIP on the season is around his pre-2010 levels and if he continues to pitch well, he will find himself putting up the same numbers we got so comfortable with over the previous three seasons.