Jason Hammel: From Riches to Rags

In what has become a typical move for the team, the Cubs reportedly signed free agent pitcher Jason Hammel last Friday to a one-year deal worth $6 million with another $1 million in incentives. Hammel figures to be a favorite to fill out one of the bottom two spots in the rotation along with his former Oriole teammate Jake Arrieta.

The 6′ 6″ former Rays prospect primarily utilizes three pitches:

A four-seam fastball which averaged about 92.8 MPH in 2013 according to Brooks Baseball and topped out around 95.1 MPH,

a two-seam fastball/sinker (average 92.5 MPH),

and a slider, mainly used against righties but he’ll also throw it to lefties (84.5 MPH).

He also uses a curve, mainly against lefties (77.2 MPH)

and an arm-side-breaking changeup, used almost exclusively against lefties (85.9 MPH).

At a glance, Hammel’s career doesn’t exactly inspire excitement. He’s never pitched 180 innings in a season and only threw 257-1/3 over the last two years. He also has a career ERA of 4.80. That number is skewed a bit because he’s played the bulk of his career in Colorado and the notoriously hitter-friendly Coors Field, but Hammel’s ERA is still 9% worse than average even after adjusting for ballpark, which mostly negates the fact that his career FIP has been right around average when adjusted for ballpark. It’s the last two seasons which are getting most people’s attention, though.

Hammel debuted a new pitch in 2012, sometimes labeled a two-seam fastball and sometimes labeled a sinker. It was his most used pitch that year and contributed to what was his most effective season to date. He posted career bests in strikeout rate (22.9%), ground ball rate (53.2%), ERA (3.43) and FIP (3.29). The downside was he only threw 118 innings, missing half of July and all of August after a right knee injury required surgery.

Then it all fell apart in 2013. His strikeout rate dropped to 15.7%, his lowest mark since 2008, while his ground ball rate dropped to a career low of 40.1%. His ERA and FIP ballooned to 4.97 and 4.93, respectively. Adjusting for ballpark, his ERA went from 18% better than average to 21% worse than average. That’s quite a precipitous drop-off in just a year.

I already mentioned that the two big problems for Hammel in 2013 were the disappearances of his strikeouts and ground balls. Let’s look at the the ground balls first. Where were all those batted balls going if not on the ground? Some of them became line drives; his line drive rate went from 18.7% in 2012 to 22.0% in 2013. This is bad, since line drives fall for hits more often than not, but that’s still right around the league average line drive rate. More of them, however, ended up in the air, as his fly ball rate rose from 28.1% to 37.9%. While it’s true that fly balls are less likely to fall for hits, it’s also true that fly balls can go out of the ballpark. This is evidenced by Hammel’s home runs per nine innings more than doubling from 0.69 to 1.42. That’s part of why his ERA increased so much with only a marginal increase in his batting average on balls in play. The other reason was simply that batters were putting more balls in play.

Hammel did a good job of missing bats in 2012, with batters making contact on 77.3% of swings. If you’ve been paying attention throughout this post, you can guess that number went up in 2013. It did, all the way to 84.5%. For reference, the average contact rate over those two years was about 79.6%. The following two tables from Texas Leaguers break down his effectiveness on each pitch.

2012:
(key: FT – two-seam, FF – four-seam, SL – slider, CU – curve, CH – change)

2013:

Hammel was actually hitting the zone more in 2013. That might or might not be part of the reason why batters were both swinging more and missing less. His three most used pitches, his fastballs and his slider, all saw sharp declines in rate of swings and misses.

So we know what happened to Hammel in 2013, but why did it happen? Yes, he was injured, but I’ll get to that. For now I want to focus on his performance when he was on the field.

One of the first things people check when a pitcher falls off a cliff is his velocity. Was he throwing the ball slower than before and therefore became more hittable? Hammel did have a small decrease in fastball velocity, from an average of 93.4 MPH in 2012 to 92.6 MPH in 2013. That’s not an entirely insignificant decline, but it’s probably not a big enough drop to think that this is the cause of his bad season.

More noticeable is the difference in Hammel’s pitch selection. The two-seamer/sinker he threw with so much success in 2012 became secondary to his four-seam fastball. He didn’t do away with it, as it was still his second-most used pitch, but every pitch labeler I looked at has him throwing it about five percentage points less often. It’s not a stretch to believe this played a part in the reduction of his ground balls.

The Cubs have shown some indications that they have an organizational preference for sinkers over four-seam fastballs. Scott Feldman, Jake Arrieta and Scott Baker all saw a big uptick in the usage of their sinker after arriving with the Cubs. Don’t be surprised if Hammel does the same.

The biggest difference I’ve found between Hammel in 2012 and 2013 wasn’t his velocity or his pitch selection, but his release point. On average, he released the ball higher and closer to his body than he did in 2012. These .gifs show that the difference was evident in each of his pitches.

I don’t want to fall in the correlation=causation trap. Just because he had a different release point and he pitched worse doesn’t mean he pitched worse because he had a different release point. However, it’s the most notable difference between his great 2012 and awful 2013.

And again, I’ve been focusing on his on-field play. The real most notable difference was that Hammel was dealing with a forearm injury for most of 2013. He went on the DL at the end of July but reportedly started having issues with it in spring training. This could have affected everything from velocity to release point. What’s more is forearm injuries could be an indication of elbow issues, which can necessitate Tommy John surgery and its year-long recovery time.

Cubs pitching coach Chris Bosio will look to make Jason Hammel more like his 2012 self. My best guess is he’ll get Hammel to go back to relying on his two-seamer/sinker more. He might also focus on getting the release point back to what it was. If it works and if Hammel’s healthy, the Cubs could have gotten a great deal. They could net a nice return on a mid-season trade and Hammel could find himself on a contending team, not to mention looking at a nice payday next off-season. However, that’s not going to happen if Hammel’s arm problems are more serious than initially believed. But at only one year and $6 million, it’s a risk well worth taking.

Pitching stats and other data taken from Brooks Baseball, Fangraphs and Texas Leaguers. Batted ball data taken from Fangraphs.

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