There will be charts and tables in this post (oh, yes, there will be charts and tables) but before I can dive into the numbers I just found myself thinking about the following question.
What does it mean to be an ace?
Beyond that, what does it mean to be an ace who has postseason experience? A guy who knows exactly what it means to toe the rubber in the World Series? How much of that muscle memory comes into play in a big moment, in a big season? How much can that experience overcome what looked like a season of an ace in decline? How much of that competitive spirit and muscle memory can be activated by joining a first place team in a big trade in July?
This post doesn’t contain answers to any of those questions, but I think they are still questions Cubs fans should keep in mind as they read this (and every other) piece on the Cole Hamels trade. I mean, for what it’s worth, last year I was sitting on an almost identical place on my couch when I concluded that Justin Verlander was done and the Cubs shouldn’t even think about that trade... and frankly, I was obviously wrong. But June 2017 Justin Verlander was having a season that looked a lot like 2018 July Cole Hamels... so...
In all seriousness, I don’t think Hamels is going to have a Verlander-type resurgence in Chicago, but the Cubs don’t need him to become a Cy Young candidate to improve their rotation. They need him to be better than Tyler Chatwood and to eat a lot of innings to save the bullpen a bit. To see if he can do that, let’s look at some stats and some pitches.
Cole Hamels is a 34-year-old pitcher who is having the worst year of his career. He’s got a 4.72 ERA and a 5.20 FIP, although his xFIP (which is basically FIP but controlled for team and park effects) is 4.18, which indicates that a lot of his struggles are related to factors that a move could certainly help. At 34 it’s possible this is Hamels’ decline, it’s also possible he’s having a bad part of his season and will correct for that in his remaining games with an assist from a defensive upgrade. Below are Hamels’ stats since 2012 plus a glimpse of his total postseason innings and ERA.
Cole Hamels basic stats since 2012
A few things stand out right away, his production by WAR has been in steady decline. He also threw substantially fewer innings in 2017 due to a strained oblique. Prior to 2017, he was one of baseball’s most reliable 200-inning arms, although it would by highly unlikely for him to hit that number in 2018.
I included his postseason innings and ERA, because his 98⅓ innings is a substantial amount of postseason experience and he’s frequently had success there (we won’t get into what happened in the ALDS in 2016...).
While I’m sure the Cubs would love a few months of 2014 Cole Hamels, that’s probably unlikely, so how does he stack up with their current starters?
Cubs Starters: Key Stats
Hamels represents a substantial upgrade in the walks category, which I know will please a lot of BCB readers. He represents a lot more risk in terms of HRs and his ground ball rate is also substantially lower than Chatwood’s. Wrigley Field is a kinder park for hitters than Globe Life Park, but if the wind is blowing out during Hamels' starts, things could get out of hand pretty quickly.
I also took some time to compile Hamels game scores for the season. He’s been a much better pitcher on the road than at home (home ERA - 6.41, away ERA - 2.93, which could be a plus for the Cubs) but his last month of work has been particularly troubling against some of baseball’s worst teams. I imagine that’s why the Cubs didn’t have to spend all that much to acquire him.
Cole Hamels game by game
|Apr 18||Tampa Bay||Away||6.1||86||0||4||47|
|May 27||Kansas City||6.1||95||3||2||36|
|June 19||Kansas City||Away||7||108||3||7||71|
|June 25||San Diego||5||90||1||5||37|
Hamels has changed his pitch makeup pretty substantially in the last couple of years. He throws a fourseam fastball that sits at 92 miles per hour about 22 percent of the time. He also throws a cutter about 20.5 percent of the time and a circle change about 19.5 percent of the time. The remaining 38 percent of his pitches are split between a slider, sinker and curveball. The slider is new to his pitches this year, as you’ll see below.
First up, pitches by velocity. While the fastball and cutter are down a titch, his other pitches have stayed pretty level over the years:
I’m not sure if his makeup changed substantially because of his new park or because of that slight dip in velocity, but whatever it was, Hamels has made significant adjustments in the last few years as you can see below:
One of the driving factors of that change may be the result of his fastball being hit more frequently and for more power as you’ll see from both charts below. The first is opponent batting average against each of Hamels' pitches, the second is slugging against each of his pitches.
This is a low-risk, high-reward move by a Cubs team that needed pitching depth at the deadline. The worst case scenario is that Hamels continues to pitch exactly has he has for the Rangers, he looks a lot like 2017 John Lackey and doesn’t pitch in the postseason. A more likely option is that he improves a bit with the change of scenery and a substantially better defense behind him. That would give the Cubs another solid arm with a lot of postseason experience behind him.
And then, there’s always the small sliver of a chance that he channels his inner Verlander...