170.2 IP, 3.74 ERA, 4.61 DRA, 24.2 K%, 5.6 BB%
Year in Review
If you’re like me, you probably only glanced over the above line: Jason Hammel’s 2015 stats. But take another look and really soak it in. Outside of that DRA—which is certainly concerning—Hammel had a damn fine season, and definitely one worthy of a playoff team’s no. 4 starter. However, you and I both know that there’s so much more to this story.
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Anybody can see the stark difference in performance by Hammel from the first and second halves of the 2015 season. Theo Epstein put it quite plainly after the season.
“Jason had, I thought, an All-Star caliber first half of the season,” Epstein said. “It’s a tale of two halves for him.”
Simply stated, but very true. The question then becomes, why? Epstein had his theories—which we’ll get to shortly—but we at BP Wrigleyville have spent plenty of internet space trying to answer that very question, with a variety of answers (even admitting there might not be a good one). Let’s spend a little more space together.
The thing is, this isn’t the first time Hammel’s had a weak second half. If we break down Hammel’s time with Chicago and with Oakland, in 2014, we once again see a similar split as above. A quick look at that year shows us a 2.98 ERA in 108 2/3 innings on the North Side, while that ERA jumped to 4.26 in 67 2/3 innings when he played by the Bay. It would be easy to suggest that Hammel clearly wears down, can’t hack it in the AL, or just has some weird second-half issues, but the veteran righty has a different explanation for his struggles in Oakland.
“We’re human, there’s the human element involved,” Hammel told me during this past season. “Moving a family—a pregnant wife—across the country, things of that nature. That was tough. I’d never done a midseason move like that. Not to make excuses, but it definitely changed my comfort level and also my effort level. Trying to move is not easy. That played a lot into it. But I was making a lot mistakes in the zone too, for whatever reason.”
When Hammel says effort level, he clarified to me that it was not a lack of desire to work hard on the field, but rather mental fatigue from issues off the field. It wasn’t that the family disliked Oakland, but as Hammel explains, they had grown comfortable in Chicago during their short time there and it was hard to uproot his family, which—as he mentioned—included his then-pregnant wife. Sometimes those types of stressors can play havoc on a person’s work life, no matter how hard they try to block it out.
So perhaps that explains his 2014 downturn, but there was no lack of stability in 2015. For some reason many of us, including myself, have focused on some dip in talent or inability to perform in the second half, rather than the most obvious conclusion: that he returned too quickly from a hamstring injury. Those two halves are separated by a key start—Hammel’s final start before the All-Star break, in which he left after one inning against St. Louis due to a hamstring issue. Instead of a stint on the disabled list, the Cubs used the break to give Hammel some rest, then had him come back as the fifth man in their rotation to buy him more time to get healthy.
“I’d be foolish to say that didn’t play a major part in what happened to him,” Epstein said when talking about Hammel’s injury, and whether it affected his second-half performance. “Maybe that’s something I can learn from and we can learn from as an organization. Maybe there was a different way to handle that process of getting him right from the injury then getting him back on the mound. He came back in a hurry—we were in the middle of a pennant race. Maybe if we had handled that differently his second half would have been different.”
It’s a perfectly legitimate reason for Hammel’s struggles, and one the pitcher pointed to as well after his disastrous Game Four start against the Mets in the NLCS. Perhaps that’s all it was—a quick return from an injury that required more care, and suddenly you go from a borderline All-Star to someone who struggles to get through four or five innings. Understanding Hamel’s injury issue and whether that’s what caused his second-half woes is the key to determining what may happen in 2016.
Epstein didn’t hesitate to give his thoughts on why Hammel was a different pitcher after the break.
“In my mind, Jason Hammel, with a nice winter’s rest and some separation from the second half and [Game Four of the NLCS] is gonna come back and be an important member of our rotation.” Epstein said. “He is that guy who you saw in the first half when he’s 100 percent and locked in. And it’s our job to get him that way for the first week of the season next year. And I’m sure we will.”
Hammel agreed that an offseason to get healthy would be key to him delivering a strong full season next summer. He added that he didn’t believe he tired down the stretch or that he needs to create a new offseason workout regimen so he can handle the wear and tear that comes with tossing 170-plus innings a season.
“I didn’t feel weak at all,” Hammel said after the season. “I honestly think it was more of a small mechanical fix that I’ve got to work on. Just watch the video and go through the delivery in the offseason and try to work it out piece by piece. It really is just timing. I’m not worried about it, I think I’ll be able to fix it.”
It’s perfectly understandable that Hammel tried to rush back from an injury while his team was in the middle of a pennant race and had a clear issue with their starting pitching depth. And consequently, it isn’t that surprising that his mechanics got a little out of whack after he rushed back from said injury.
The question then becomes can he correct these issues during the offseason. Time should heal his injuries. And while the mechanical issues are likely something so small that the average eye couldn’t catch it, Hammel, with help from pitching coach Chris Bosio and others in the organization, should be able to make the necessary tweaks.
Hammel told me that working with Bosio has always been easy and the gruff but endearing coach has an ability to quickly identify issues with Hammel and straighten him out when things go wrong. That will obviously be imperative this winter. The other key may be that Hammel truly does feel comfortable and confident in Chicago.
Earlier in the summer he explained to me why he believes he’s better now than ever before in his career. He noted that he went from a guy who tried to just overpower batters with heat and whiff them with nasty breaking stuff, to living down in the zone in Colorado, to a groundball artist in Baltimore, to the pitcher he is now in Chicago. That’s an arm who lives off his fastball command, working on the edges, both outer and upper, changing eye level, and getting swing and misses on his slider to put guys away.
It’s a simple concept, but as Hammel repeatedly says whenever he talks about his success, it all comes down to that fastball. According to Brooks Baseball, a quick look at how often he was throwing his four-seamer and sinker for strikes in 2015 shows a stark contrast from before and after the injury. Both the overall strike percentage and first-pitch strike percentage for both pitches dropped from the first to second half. As Hammel told me, no pitcher is going to have success if they can’t throw their fastballs for strikes. The batter won’t bother offering at breaking balls, the pitcher will fall behind in the count, and the hitter—now in a fastball count—will pound the fastball thrown over the plate that the pitcher—desperate for a strike—has now thrown. That’s (relatively) simply explained but difficult to execute, especially if you’re dealing with a lower body injury.
The Cubs are undoubtedly looking for pitching depth; they’ve made that abundantly clear to anyone who will listen, and the smart money is on them adding multiple arms this offseason. But that doesn’t mean that Hammel should be ignored as we head into 2016. There are many questions ranging from his health and mechanics to just his general effectiveness and durability. Each is fair, but assuming Hammel is a non-factor going forward certainly isn’t.
Epstein and company aren’t giving up on him. That said, as Esptein said after the season, it’s their job to anticipate any issues heading into next season and use the offseason to try and make sure those possible pitfalls are eliminated. Once the offseason has come to a close, there will be answers to many of the questions we have for this team, but what the Cubs have in Hammel will still be a slight mystery. We spent so much time looking at what Hammel was doing on the field and what may or may not have changed with his pitch mix that we may have ignored why it was all happening. If the injury really was the root of these problems, perhaps all this hand-wringing over his pitches or mysterious second-half demons was for naught. But until we see him on the mound, healthy and executing his pitches deep into the season, doubt will still remain about whether he can get the job done.
Lead photo courtesy of Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports