Back in Chicago, Jason Hammel Looks for a Return to Form

It was insert cliche here a tale of two seasons for Jason Hammel in 2014: in one, he was the surprise Chicago success story, a guy racking up strikeouts at a high clip while maintaining a sub-3 ERA. In the other, he was the acquired gun who fizzled in Oakland, getting blown apart with a 2-6 record and bloated FIP, a prime culprit in the team’s second-half choke job.

All told, Hammel finished 38th among starting pitchers in Zach Sanders’ end of the season rankings, though surely those fantasy owners who hoped that a move to the (at the time) high-flying A’s and their big ballpark would help Hammel continue his good vibes still harbor some bitterness.

A $20 million contract in hand, Hammel is now on his way back to Chicago, where he’ll look to recapture the success of his first three months of 2014. As far as fantasy owners are concerned, however, he’ll also be looking to prove that his 2015 value is closer to that of his Cubbie tenure than his brief stay in Oakland.

Before we begin, let’s stack the two seasons against each other:

4/3-7/4 17 108.2 8-5 8.6 1.9 1.02 .272 2.98 3.19 3.21
7/9-9/25 12 67.2 2-6 7.2 2.8 1.29 .272 4.26 5.10 4.15

The main takeaway, at least to my mind, is that Hammel’s time in Oakland, while underwhelming, was by no means disastrous. Yes, the FIP is bad, but his SIERA was a more tolerable 4.06, and his xFIP, taking into account an unfortunate 15.3% HR/FB%, also is much easier on Hammel. (The HR/FB% is especially interesting: Hammel’s mark with the Cubs, who call the home run neutral Wrigley Field home, was a quite reasonable 9.3%, so basically, Hammel’s luck on long balls tipped over when he went to the team whose ballpark is one of the most homer-hampering in all of baseball.)

Hammel’s other peripherals stayed flat: a somewhat generous .272 BABIP survived and the high 78.4% strand rate that aided him in the Windy City essentially was replicated in Oakland — all the more surprising considering the 13 home runs he surrendered in his 12 starts. Meanwhile, his batted ball profile was similar, even if he turned in a slightly lower GB/FB rate in Oakland.

What the chart does show, indisputably, is that Hammel went from a pitcher with superior strikeout and walk rates to one who became simply average in those two categories in the second half of the year. In a sense, this shouldn’t be shocking; the 32-year-old Hammel, while typically demonstrating decent control throughout his career, came into 2014 with a lifetime 6.5 K/9.

But something changed for him in 2014: he began to use his slider more than he ever had in his career. Way more. In fact, it accounted for nearly one out of every three pitches he threw, making him the fourth-most slider-dependent qualified hurler in baseball. He largely shelved his curveball and changeup, choosing instead to double his sinker usage against both left- and right-handed hitters and making sure everyone got extra helpings of his slider, which became his primary two-strike weapon. He had good reason for doing so: while pitching for the Cubs, he was generating a 19.3% whiff rate with the pitch.

Problem is, as 2014 went on, the slider’s velocity began to drop. Whereas he had opened the season throwing the pitch in the mid-80s, on par with his career norm, it was down more than two and a half miles per hour over the last three months of the season. It’s unclear why that happened; Hammel’s fastball velocity stayed consistent throughout the year, so arm fatigue isn’t an obvious explanation, and the slower speed helped Hammel generate the most vertical movement on the pitch in his career.

But clearly, as the slider’s velocity dropped, so too did its whiff rate:


The effectiveness of his best pitch diminished, Hammel’s overall SwStr% dropped nearly three percentage points between the Cubs and the A’s. That coincided with a six-point surge in his Contact%, though a worsened ability to locate his pitches contributed as well:


But again, Hammel wasn’t completely dreadful out west. In his 12 Oakland starts (one of his appearances was in relief), he allowed more than three earned runs just three times, and at the risk of cherry picking, he compiled a 2.22 ERA, 1.09 WHIP, 7.3 K/9 and 2 BB/9 in the other 10 games, including that relief outing. Basically, Hammel had three lousy starts in Oakland, or, put another way, likely would have had a better record had the A’s given him more than an average of 2.4 runs in the games he started for them.

For his part, Hammel said his mechanics were off when he first came to Oakland as a result of (here it comes) “trying to do too much.” John Jaso similarly observed a flaw in his delivery. Whatever the reason, Hammel eventually settled down and began spotting his pitches better, greatly improving both his F-Strike% and O-Swing% in five September appearances, during which the strikeouts came roaring back at an 8.5 K/9 pace and he produced a 3.03 FIP.

Hammel has had an interesting, if inconsistent and injury-plagued, career over the last few seasons. He managed 3.8 WAR in 2010, was terrible the next year, was a fantasy stallion for the two-thirds of the 2012 season in which he was healthy, and in 2013, in part due to an arm issue, went back to being mediocre. In 2014, of course, he had half a season in which he was great, and another half in which he wasn’t so great. It’s also important to note that Hammel has never cracked the 200-inning mark (the 176.1 frames he pitched in 2014 were his most in four years) and his heavy reliance on his slider begs the question of whether he’s a DL candidate in the near future.

But if his inconsistency and injury risk make him a hard guy to pin down for the future, well, at the very least we can say that he’ll be back to pitching in an environment where he’s enjoyed success. Beyond that, a return to the National League can only help him, the Cubs’ budding farm system is already producing offense at the big league level and there’s evidence to suggest that Miguel Montero will provide a defensive boost behind the plate as well.

Steamer is basically rosy on Hammel, projecting a 3.86 ERA (due largely to a regressed strand rate and BABIP) and confident that he can maintain an 8 K/9 and 2.6 BB/9, numbers that would give him value in many mixed leagues. His health questions and the sour taste over his Oakland adventure will probably knock down his price on draft day, but his upside is that of a near top 40 performance at a reasonable price.

Karl, a journalist living in Washington, D.C., learned about life's disappointments by following the Mets beginning at a young age. His work has appeared in numerous publications, and he has contributed to the 2014 and 2015 editions of The Hardball Times Annual. Follow/harass him on Twitter @Karl_de_Vries.

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Cubs seem to emphasis with the use of the slider which has a history of creating arm problems. Unless the Cubs know something we do not know. I will be staying away from hammel next year


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