Jason Hammel was never an elite prospect with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, but there was a level of expectation for production that he seemed to fall short of which eventually led to his being traded to Colorado. Predictably, he didn’t flourish there (though he also wasn’t a nightmare, either) and was again traded, this time to Baltimore in 2012. To this point in his career, Hammel was a slightly below league average arm who lacked that reliable offering to thwart lefties consistently and he wasn’t anywhere near dominating righties as a way to make up for it. The move to Baltimore started to turn that tide.
Hammel was one of baseball’s best pitchers in April 2012. His 1.97 ERA was 19th-best in baseball and he posted skills that backed the big surge, too. He had a career 16% strikeout rate and 8% walk rate through his first 732 innings coming into 2012. Through April of that year, he was 24% with the strikeout rate while maintaining the same 8% walk rate in 32 innings. Perhaps the starkest difference was his groundball rate which had lingered around the mid-40s to that point before skyrocketing to a fantastic 61% mark in that April.
A couple of ugly outings and an eventual knee injury derailed the breakout. He posted a 3.98 ERA in his final 86 innings that season, but the skills were still strong overall, especially the 23% strikeout rate and the continued groundball lean which sat around 50% the rest of the way. Improved velocity, a big shift from the four-seamer to the two-seamer, and increased slider usage drove Hammel’s semi-breakout.
Despite carrying over that approach, he looked more like the Tampa Bay and Colorado versions of Hammel in 2013, netting a 4.97 ERA in 139 innings. His strikeout rate tumbled to 16% and his groundball rate was all the back at 40% for the year. Skepticism surrounding the standout April turned to full-on disbelief and he was once again ignored as any sort of fantasy asset. He signed with the Cubs for the 2014 season, a move I had some interest in as I wrote the following in the 2014 Starting Pitcher Guide:
This is a solid low-risk move by the Cubs that could really pay off. If he finds that 2012 level again, he could be flipped later in the season for more prospect reinforcements or he is realistically young enough that if he really got going, they could look to extend him as someone to tide them over as they wait for their wave of young talent. Keep an eye on him.
The Cubs got Hammel to essentially amplify what worked well in that 2012 campaign with a focus on the fastball and slider. Those pitches made up 90% of his output through early-July, up from 82% in 2012, and generated a lot of success for Hammel. He had career bests in both his strikeout (24%) and walk (5%) rates. Groundballs weren’t the same focus as in Baltimore so his GB% was only at 42%, but he was still getting more grounders than flies and it helped him stay in the yard with a 0.83 HR/9 (1.1 career mark prior to ‘14).
Then it happened.
Over the Fourth of July weekend of 2014, Hammel was yet again traded, though this time it was finally for good reasons. He was excelling, but doing so on a lousy team that wasn’t really benefitting from his work. So he was dealt with ace Jeff Samardzija to Oakland as reinforcements to baseball’s best team in a blockbuster deal that saw super-prospect Addison Russell head the other way along with Dan Straily and Billy McKinney. Not only was Hammel going to be succeeding personally, but now he’d be doing so on a great team.
Hammel struggled upon arrival after the trade with a nightmarish 9.53 ERA in his first four starts with Oakland. He fanned just 12 against 10 walks in the 17 innings and that home run suppression we saw in Chicago was gone with five homers allowed (2.5 HR/9). His pitch mix didn’t change, but the results couldn’t have been more different. The problem was that he had lost command of that stuff so the volume of each pitch used was irrelevant. He wasn’t locating anything and the opposition was feasting.
The coda to his stay in Oakland is often forgotten, sullied by that horrid first impression, but he closed with a 2.49 ERA in his final 50.7 innings with 42 strikeouts and 11 walks. The eight home runs were still problematic, but they were mostly confined to one really bad outing (3 HR and 5 ER in 3 IP at ATL) and a solid-but-unspectacular effort in Seattle (2 HR and 3 ER in 5 IP). There was still a lot more good than bad in Hammel’s 2014, yet all anyone seemed to remember was his initial run after the trade.
He wasted little time re-signing Chicago, inking a two-year, $20 million dollar deal that pays him $9 mil this year and next with a $10 million dollar option in ’17 or a $2 million dollar buy-out. Not too bad for someone who had a 4.80 ERA in his first 989.3 innings. Thankfully he had the 3.47 ERA in 176.3 innings when it mattered most: his sixth year of service time in the majors. The Cubs obviously believed they could get the Hammel on early-2014 and so far they’ve been dead on.
The slider usage has taken yet another jump (up to 37%) bringing the fastball-slider usage up to 92% and so far it has yielded a 2.82 ERA and 0.90 WHIP in 67 innings with new career-best strikeout (26%) and walk (3%) rates. The ERA indicators are also very supportive of his early work with a 2.65 FIP and 2.74 SIERA. The key difference that has taken him from bland to beast has been his work against lefties.
In that first hint of a breakout with Baltimore in 2012, his OPS against lefties dropped from .808 in ’11 to .586. It was back up to .881 in ’13, but then down to .691 last year and .579 so far this year. The slider is the key. Looking from 2009 until now and breaking his career up with 2009-11 and 2013 seasons as one set and 2012, 2014-15 as another, we get a good read on the alterations to the slider that have driven his success. The two major differences have been to take it out of the zone so much and move it down, with the former being much more important of the two.
When it wasn’t working, he was putting it in the strike zone 53% of the time and lefties feasted with a .349/.381/.550 line and a 27% strikeout rate in 140 plate appearances. In 2012 and these last two seasons, he has only put it in the zone 40% of the time and the line has melted down to .164/.210/.209 with a 43% strikeout rate in 143 plate appearances. He buries the slider down in the zone and can work it both in under the hands of lefties and on the outside corner.
When working the slider in on lefties, they’re just done: .020/.075/.040 with a 76% strikeout rate in 53 PA. But even working it middle and out has been a weapon for Hammel when it used to be batting practice time. Before he became the guy we see now, lefties feasted on sliders middle and out with a 1.068 OPS in 88 PA. It’s at .598 in 90 PA these days (and 2012). It is worth noting that he has seen an improvement against right-handers with the slider, too, though just not as extreme.
First off, righties didn’t hammer it in the 2009-11 and 2013 subset as lefties did with just a .680 OPS in 387 PA, but he still shaved nearly 200 points off that figure in the 2012, 2014-15 subset with a .490 OPS. Additionally, the strikeout rate has jumped from 21% to 34%. Isolating just the 2014-15 figures, we see that Hammel’s slider has become elite against righties. His .442 OPS is eighth-best in baseball the last two years with at least 100 PA and fifth-best among starters once you chop Andrew Miller, Darren O’Day, and Dellin Betances off the top (ranging from .261 to .368).
Of course, the success of the slider has increased his reliance on it which has unintended consequences. Now that he’s throwing it 36-37% of the time, he has one of the highest usage rates of the pitch in all of baseball (fourth-most, in fact). That kind of extreme usage can heighten the risk for injury. It’s the same reason I worry about Chris Archer (38%) and Michael Pineda (33%) despite how excellent they look when at their best. It’s why Tyson Ross (45%) is a constant injury worry, especially since he has a shoddy health record already (as does Pineda).
Thankfully, Hammel doesn’t have a major injury history. He has three DL stints, but two were lower body. The other was a forearm tendinitis issue that cost him all of August 2013. Outside of the general health concern lingering over every single pitcher and an uptick in risk due to the slider usage, Hammel offers a lot to like on the fantasy landscape.
There are still many skeptics thus he is still quite attainable, even with the 2014 success and great start to this year. The strikeout uptick has made him an asset in the category. Even before the 11-strikeout effort against Miami on Monday that boosted him to 26%, he was sitting at 25% through his first nine outings, falling below five strikeouts in a game just once (4 in 6 IP v. MIL). He’s also part of a good team again and this time without having to be traded there. The Cubs are playing very well and with four wins already, he seems like a shoo-in to crush his career high of 10 in wins (set in 2009, reached in ’10 and ’14).
Hammel took the long way to relevance, but he’s here and I don’t think he’s going anywhere. The skills have shown up in flashes throughout his career, but appear here to stay thanks in large part to the development of that slider into a plus pitch weapon against both sides of the plate. His fastballs are far from elite, but they’re good enough to get him to the slider consistently and as long as he remains upright (the obvious disclaimer for any arm, I guess), he will be a quality fantasy asset.
His bottom line 2014 numbers – 3.47 ERA, 1.12 WHIP – feel reasonable for a rest of season projection that builds in some regression, but if he can continue the strikeout and walk rates at this elite level, then something south of a 3.00 ERA is very much in play. I wouldn’t be looking to sell out of my Hammel shares right now, in fact, I’d be open to acquiring more since he won’t cost what it would normally take to get someone with a 3.29 ERA and 1.06 WHIP since the start of 2014. Those figures land him 35th and 7th, respectively, among the 92 guys with 200+ IP in that timeframe.