The Dissection of Cole Hamels

Before I start, I’d like to send out congratulations to Cole and Heidi Hamels on the birth of their son. Taking on a task as brutal as pitching in the playoffs knowing your wife could go into labor at any minute – even if you’re still on the mound! – is a harrowing thought, and hopefully something I’ll never have to deal with.

I’ve been a proponent of the notion that Hamels really hasn’t had as bad a year as most of his numbers would indicate. He’s been an easy scapegoat, but really, most fans are just looking for someone to blame whenever anything isn’t perfect. Like I’ve said, you can usually count me among those, but the blame directed at Hamels is misguided and undue.

You want to know why? Here’s why.

You could really base an argument for this off the notion that Hamels got off to such a rough start because of his workload from 2008. You’d probably be right, but that’s not something I’m going to crown as the champion bullet on my outline.

Instead, I’m taking a look at Hamels’s season as a complete body of work. April through October, prior to Thursday’s start against the Rockies. It’s not an overwhelming case, but a fair portion of the numbers suggest that Cole’s 2009 seasons was as good as – if not better than, in some aspects – his 2008 campaign.

Wh-…wha-…WHAAAT?!? B-b-but his ERA is over a run higher! He lost more games than he won! He won four fewer games total!

Bartolo Colon won a Cy Young Award, thanks in no small part to wins

Bartolo Colon won a Cy Young Award, thanks in no small part to wins

I know all this. And still, I mean what I say. A pitcher’s wins and ERA are, still, far from the best evaluators of a season, even though it seems they’re the only things a sports writer takes into account when voting for things like the Cy Young Award. Not so ’round these parts, hoss! We do thangs a li’l diff’rent. Ahem.

So, how could I make such a claim, then? The answer lies a bit deeper, within some far recesses of Hamels’s statistical record. Not the commonly-referenced stats like wins or ERA, but numbers that provide a little more insight into a pitcher’s performance.

There’s a reason I use these stats and not the more mainstream ones. I’ve found that these metrics, these sabermetrics, often depict a player’s performance far more accurately than basic stats. I wasn’t even a math major in school, there’s no numerophile – if anyone knows what word I’m really looking for here, let me know what it is, please – bias or anything going on here.

We’ll start with the most telling statistic: Hamels’s BABIP, or batting average (against) on balls in play. This doesn’t factor in strikeouts or home runs, as neither of those outcomes are playable by the defense. A shortstop doesn’t field a strikeout, and a center fielder has no chance to play a home run ball because it literally leaves the playable field. That’s the gist of it.

What BABIP tells us, on a basic, elemental level is how often a pitcher’s defense turns a batted ball into an out. We’re not just talking about batters reaching on error; we’re taking bad range into account here, too. Heck, look at Zack Greinke of the Royals. The man had a preposterously good season, and the outfield defense behind him was rather poor. Excepting David DeJesus, who posted a 14 UZR/150, only two players who started at least 40 games posted positive numbers in that category, least valuable of which being Jose Guillen and his -36.4 score in the field. Imagine what Greinke’s numbers could have been with a guy like Seattle’s Franklin Gutierrez playing behind him?

Anyway, back on point: Hamels had seen significant decreases in his BABIP over his three seasons in Philly. From .300 on the nose in 2006 to .289 in ’07 and .270 in ’08, more and more balls in play were being turned into outs as his strikeout rates fell.

Now, even though his strikeouts have stopped disappearing, Hamels has suddenly become the victim of a rather large amount of batted balls dropping in for hits. His BABIP spiked to .329 in 2009, a solid .059 above his 2008 figure. That’s an incredible jump. And yet, he’s given up fewer line drives and no more fly balls than he had last year. See for yourself. What could it be, then? Did the legion of hitters Hamels faced all of a sudden learn how to hit a ball so precisely that it would bloop in for a hit no matter where it headed? No, that’s impossible. The glory and infamy of baseball is that those balls do all that work on their own.

(And, sometimes, one run scored this way is all it takes. Remember this from Game Two?)

Was it a decrease in fastball velocity that threw everything off, including his changeup? Again, not the case, as Hamels’s average fastball was 90.2 MPH, only 0.2 off from the past two seasons, and that’s including his first two starts of the year, when his fastball averaged a smackable 88.1 MPH.

If you watched Hamels’s last three or four starts, Friday’s jaunt against Colorado included to an extent, you probably noticed how poorly-hit balls often made Cole the victim. Well, that small sample has, essentially, been a microcosm for all of 2009: lots and lots of end-of-the-bat bloops with an irregular home run thrown in for good measure.

Happs ERA could take a step back in 2010

Happ's ERA could take a step back in 2010

I’ve often been called a hater for saying that J.A. Happ won’t enjoy a season nearly as good as this one ever again, but it’s become fairly clear that the only people who call me this are those in denial about Happ’s true ability. I’m frightened by the distinct possibility that Happ could experience something similar to what happened to Kyle Kendrick in 2008. Kyle had a 3.87 ERA in 20 starts as a rookie for the Phillies in 2007, then saw his numbers balloon to a 5.49 ERA in 31 games in 2008. People were confused by this, but I’ll tell you that it was no accident that his ERA increased by more than a run and a half as his BABIP rose from .279 to .316. Happ, meanwhile, has finished 2009 with a .270 BABIP. What do you think might happen when that inevitably regresses toward the average, somewhere between .290-.300 or higher? Happ doesn’t strike out nearly enough people to keep up hopes that his numbers will stay this low with all the balls put in play against him.

I say this because Cole Hamels strikes out more than his fair share of batters, enough so that a great defense behind him isn’t a necessity. Guys like Kendrick and, to a lesser extent, Happ need that solid defense behind them to put up good numbers.

Considering all of that, how can Hamels be criticized for a season that, for the most part, wasn’t his fault? A stat like xFIP, which roughly calculates with a pitcher’s ERA would be without the element of the defense behind him, good or bad, shows that Hamels had an ERA more than half a run higher (4.32) than it “should” have been according to xFIP (3.75).

[For the record, Hamels’s xFIP is nearly a full run lower than Happ’s (Cole’s 3.75 to J.A.’s 4.58). Their ERAs, for all intents and purposes, could be swapped one-for-one with their peripheral stats.]

His strikeouts are still there. His stuff is still there. The balls put in play behind him just weren’t turned into outs as effectively as they had in the past. It happens. It’s not necessarily a damning indictment of the defense, because the defense often can’t do much with bloops, either.

It’s important to recognize that there is, in fact, probably nothing at all wrong with Hamels. He’s in line to put up much better numbers in 2010 than he has in 2009, assuming ’09 is the fluke it appears to be. The only thing Cole is struggling with is Lady Luck, the most frustrating and indefensible adversary there is.

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