By now, it’s no secret what Cole Hamels is doing. Now a member of the Chicago Cubs, the 34-year-old southpaw has seemly returned to his prime, posting a 0.79 ERA across 34 innings while striking out 30 opposing batters and walking just eight.
Those solid numbers have helped to produce a second half strikeout rate of 22.9 percent for the left-hander, while improving upon his already solid first half walk rate of 8.4 percent with a 6.5 percent mark thus far in the second half. While his strikeout rate has stayed the same, what has changed for Hamels is the amount of hard contact given up and the direction that contact is made. Prior to the All-Star break, Hamels owned a hard hit rate of 43.7 percent with 33.1 percent of balls in play classified as fly balls. In the time since the break and helped along by his success with the Cubs, the southpaw has lowered that hard hit percentage to 34.6 percent, while at the same time upping his ground ball rate more than five points (from 44.3 percent to 49.5 percent) and lowering his fly ball rate to 23.8 percent.
While the second half sample size is still small (39 innings) and even smaller in a Cub uniform (34 innings), Hamels had looked like a different pitcher. His 2.31 second half ERA is more than two runs lower than his first half mark while opposing hitters are slugging 153 points lower since the break off the southpaw.
Hamels’ success has synced up with an increased usage of his fastball. Prior to August, Hamels’ highest fastball usage came in July when he used the pitch 30 percent of the time. Looking at opposing hitter’s success on the pitch, one would think Hamels would use it less moving forward instead of more. During the month of July, opponents teed off on Hamels’ four-seam fastball, hitting .579 with a .947 slugging percentage and .368 ISO.
Since the turn of the calendar, Hamels has upped his usage of the pitch to 40 percent, cutting back the usage of his sinker to compensate. An increase of right around a half mile per hour (93.60) has accompanied the higher usage of the pitch in August, and kept alive Hamels’ streak of increasing velocity on the pitch each month since he averaged 89.94 MPH to begin the season. Mechanical changes as reported by The Athletic has led to Hamels being able to control the pitch much more and the uptick in velocity. For those reasons, the southpaw is now throwing the pitch with conviction and it’s paying off.
So far this month, opposing batters are hitting .286 of Hamels’ fastball, slugging the same lowly number and have yet to record an extra base hit off the pitch. In fact, opponents have managed just one extra base hit off Hamels this month, that coming on a curveball.
This Success Could Lead to Big Money for Hamels
Hamels’ first 20 starts this season did not go so well. In that stretch spanning 114.1 innings, the southpaw posted a 4.72 ERA including an 11.12 ERA in 17 innings during the month of July.
Prior to the trade, Hamels was floundering with Texas, a team solidly out of contention for the time being, posting an average 101 ERA-plus and well over career average numbers in WHIP, hits per nine, home runs per nine and walks per nine.
That rough first half came just two seasons after Hamels posted a 3.21 ERA during the first portion of the 2016 season, earning his fifth All-Star Game selection and first since 2012. While that success didn’t last long — 4.20 ERA in 2017 — that All-Star-caliber performance proved Hamels had much left in the tank.
Now, his efforts with the Cubs are backing up that notion for a pitcher that is postseason tested (2008 NLCS and World Series MVP) and by now knows how to navigate a major league lineup (2,510.2 career regular season innings).
If you think of dominant second halves for starting pitchers in a Cubs’ uniform, one would not have to think too hard to remember Jake Arrieta‘s performance in 2015.
For 107.1 innings post-All-Star break that year, Arrieta was other-worldly, posting an 0.75 ERA and limiting opposing batters to a .148/.204/.205 slash line. In addition, the right-hander struck out 28.3 percent of batters during that run, while walking just 5.8 percent of those he faced.
Arrieta’s efforts during that second half propelled him to finish the season with a 1.77 ERA and 7.3 WAR, resulting in his first career Cy Young Award.
In the three seasons since winning those honors, Arrieta has remained an above average major league starting pitcher. Across 86 starts for the Cubs and Philadelphia Phillies, Arrieta has pitched to a 3.32 ERA with a .603 winning percentage and ERA-plus of 129. To go along with that, the now 32-year-old right-hander has worked 510 innings, while averaging 8.1 strikeouts per game, 3.1 walks per contest and 0.9 home runs per nine for a 1.167 WHIP over that span.
Arrieta’s numbers, especially the ones he posted in 2016 and 2017, earned him a three-year, $75 million deal from the Phillies this past offseason with club options for 2021 and 2022. If not for a slow winter, it’s entirely possible Arrieta could have received a deal in the mid-$100 million range for four or five years. Still, a $75 million payday is nothing to shake your head at especially with Arrieta’s struggles at the beginning of his career.
Cole Hamels doesn’t know what the word ‘struggle’ means save for the last season and a half. In his second year at the major league level, Hamels finished sixth in the American League Cy Young voting while earning his first All-Star Game selection. Just a year later, he was winning the World Series and taking MVP honors. Four seasons later, Hamels inked a seven-year, $159 million deal as a member of the Phillies, one that has seen him travel through Texas and now Chicago. That deal is set to expire at season’s end, but carries a hefty $20 million team option for 2019.
For a Cubs team that continues to get more expensive with every passing year, that price tag may not make sense, even if Hamels returns to a prior version of himself.
If that turns out to be the case and the Cubs fail to pick up the option next season, Hamels could be due for another rather solid payday. He is two years older than Arrieta but possesses almost identical numbers as the right-hander over the last two and a half seasons.
From 2016 to present, Hamels has made 81 starts spanning 497 innings. In that time, the southpaw is sporting a 3.73 ERA, ERA-plus of 125 and a .636 winning percentage. Additionally, Hamels has averaged 8.1 strikeouts, 3.3 walks, 1.2 home runs and 8.1 hits per nine innings over that span, resulting in a WHIP of 1.266.
Those numbers are very close to Arrieta’s and only continue to improve with each passing start.
While we’ve seen age play a factor in free agent signings and dollar amounts over the years, especially with starting pitchers, Hamels seems to have found a second wind in a Cubs uniform.
As mentioned previously, Hamels’ fastball velocity has trended upward this season and resulted in the pitch averaging 92.73 MPH this year, a number that is slightly better than last season and in-line with the numbers he posted during his most successful campaigns.
On the North Side of Chicago, we are witnessing the beginning of Hamels’ second act. Obviously, the southpaw is not going to pitch to a sub-1.00 ERA for the remainder of the second half, but he could play a huge role in the Cubs’ postseason hopes.
With Hamels’ experience in the majors and postseason experience alone, there will no doubt be a market for the southpaw when he hits free agency either next year or in 2020. By then, Hamels will be on the wrong side of 35. However, if he can continue to pitch the way he has over his last five outings, the left-hander could be due for a nice chuck of change when he hits free agency.
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