Please Hammel, Don’t Hurt ‘Em: Cubs’ #3 Comfortable in His Second Stint in the Second City

Anyone want to hear a quick fairy tale? Great, here goes: bad team signs player to rebound deal, player out-performs deal and becomes trade bait. Player (along with even better player) is moved to good team in exchange for stud prospects. Player doesn’t perform as well for new team, season ends in disappointing fashion, player re-signs with first team.

That convoluted little story is one that would have been implausible before this season, but human boomerang Jason Hammel now stands as a prime example of just how far this Cubs team has come. Previously a springboard for players hoping to parlay decent performance into a shot with a winner, free agents would sign with the Cubs just hoping to be traded away.

For their part, Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer were hoping for the same thing. In that sense, the strategy was no different from that of any successful stock market guru; buy low, sell high, rinse, and repeat. This approach is what netted them Jake Arrieta and Pedro Strop a couple years ago and, while it doesn’t always pan out, the hits outweigh the misses.

But Hammel is a bit of a different story,  a guy who didn’t really want to be traded away. Nor did the Cubs want to traded him. But the opportunity to acquire Addison Russell, not to mention Dan Straily and Billy McKinney, was too great to pass up. So it was Epstein told Hammel he’d be a top priority for the Cubs in the offseason.

Sure enough, Hammel’s phone rang on the first day of free agency and he was brought on board even before Jon Lester. This says a lot about the Cubs, not only what they’re building in terms of a competitive team, but a culture in the clubhouse. Guys want to play where they feel comfortable, and that’s something you didn’t really see as much on the North Side in the recent past.

That would certainly be a convenient explanation for Hammel’s performance with the Cubs, which is far better than what could be expected from his career numbers. Over part of 10 seasons with the Rays, Rockies, Orioles, Cubs, and Athletics, the big righty has compiled a 4.54/4.23/1.377 ERA/FIP/WHIP slash. If you’re not aware of the significance of those number, that’s extremely pedestrian.

Hammel’s numbers with the Cubs, however, are 3.02/3.24/1.013, totals that have “ace” written all over them. Want more? His 8.4 K/9 with Chicago is more than a full strikeout per game better than at any other stop (7.3 with BAL) and his 1.7 BB/9 is one walk lower (2.7 with COL), giving him an overall K/BB ratio of 5/1.

In case you were interested, that’s right on par with what guys like Stephen Strasburg (5.13), Madison Bumgarner (5.12), and Chris Sale (4.90) have put up over the past two seasons. I don’t know about you, but I’d be happy having my name in such company.

But it’s got to be about more than just comfort in the clubhouse and the city, right? Well, sure, but I believe it’s still about comfort. What I mean is that a pitcher has to be comfortable with the various offerings in his repertoire; if a grip just doesn’t feel right or if he can’t locate a certain pitch, his confidence can be shaken and his performance drops.

In taking a broad view of Hammel’s career, there’s an obvious shift in 2014, the year he first joined the Cubs. He’s always had a fastball/slider/curve/change mix, but the proportions were reallocated in Chicago.

While the FB held relatively steady at just under 60%, the curve and change were utilized only about half as often, replaced by an increased focus on the slider. In fact, Hammel went to the slide-piece about 50% more often in 2014 than he had in the two previous seasons (32% vs. 22.4% in 2012 and 21% in 2013).

In reviewing individual game splits, we see a great deal of variance in the use of his pitches, but that’s to be expected. The weather, lineup, and feel for one pitch or another will impact utilization on any given day. When he started grooving his changeup around mid-May, that pitch fell out of favor and was non-existent for much of June.

Still, the one constant is that Hammel always utilized at least three pitches and that the curve was always in the arsenal. Until he got to Oakland. Fastball usage went up, slider usage went down, the change went up, and the curve really dropped off. And I don’t mean in the sense that it was such a great pitch that it appeared to drop off a table; I mean he quit using it.

In 8 of his 12 appearances with Oakland, Hammel threw the curve less than 2% of the time, including 5 straight down the stretch in which he didn’t use it at all. And in two of those games, the changeup wasn’t there either. This may go without saying, but a starting pitcher with only two offerings, neither of which is electric, isn’t really going to scare anyone.

For whatever reason, he just couldn’t find a rhythm and didn’t look like the same guy in Oakland. I’m sure the members of the baseball intelligentsia will shake their fists at me for suggesting this, but I just wonder if his heart wasn’t in it there. Wait, let me try to rephrase that a bit.

I don’t mean to say that the guy isn’t a competitor, which is what that last musing may have indicated. What I mean is that given all the things that go into producing a quality major league pitch, it’s not all that unreasonable to believe that there were external factors at play in derailing Hammel’s performance. A butterfly flaps its wings in China and we get a thunderstorm, and so on.

Regardless of what was holding him back in his previous stops, the 2015 Cubs version of Jason Hammel appears to be back and just as good as the first edition. And with Jon Lester and Jake Arrieta, he’s more than holding up his end of the top-of-the-order trifecta. Now, if we could just see some consistency from Travis Wood and Kyle Hendricks.

As a fan, it’s really great to see a guy want to stay with your team. It’s even better to see him want to stay so badly that he’s willing to come back after being traded away. Boston fans were sure Jon Lester was going to do the same, but that didn’t work out. I’m sure the money truck the Cubs backed up to his front door helped, but still.

Jason Hammel might not be grabbing the headlines for this Cubs team, but he’s as much a personification of what they’re doing as anyone else on the roster. He’s comfortable with this team and I’m comfortable with the idea that he can maintain this high level of performance moving forward.

Now just think of how scary this team will be when they add another starter and Hammel is the #4.

Stats via FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference.


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