Throughout the course of his career, Cole Hamels‘ calling card has been his change-up. When the Chicago Cubs acquired the struggling southpaw from the Texas Rangers mid-way through last season, they were getting a pitcher who had not allowed an opposing batting average higher than .253 on his change-up since 2008.
That down season for the veteran left-hander came in 2016, a campaign that saw Hamels post a 3.32 ERA across 200.2 innings for the Rangers. For his efforts that season, Hamels was selected to his fourth All-Star Game as 2016 represented the last time he reached the 200-inning plateau.
With Yu Darvish on the shelf for much of the 2018 season and Tyler Chatwood battling command problems, the Cubs decided to swing a trade for Hamels at the deadline last season. For a discounted price, the Cubs picked up a decorated pitcher who had fallen on hard times with Texas.
Prior to the trade in 2018, Hamels was sporting a 4.72 ERA across 20 starts and 114.1 innings, while at the same time posting an elevated BB/9 rate of 3.3, almost a full free pass higher than his career average of 2.5. Despite pitching much better with his new club, Hamels finished the 2018 campaign allowing a .307 batting average on his four-seam fastball. In addition to that lofty average, opposing hitters slugged .570 on the offering last season while at the same time mashing 13 home runs on 927 fastballs.
Overall, opposing batters hit .282 on his fastball grouping (four-seam, cutters and sinkers), as they managed an even better .313 expected batting average and .481 slugging percentage.
Nevertheless his struggles with the fastball, Hamels was still able to find success with his secondary offerings, holding opposing batters to a .217 batting average on off-speed pitches, including his change-up, while sporting an even better .142 batting average and .217 slugging percentage with his breaking balls in 2018.
Those sparkling numbers helped Hamels rebound from a tough start with the Rangers last season and finish strong with the Cubs. Across 12 starts down the stretch, Hamels posted a 2.36 ERA over 76.1 innings, dropping his BB/9 rate back to 2.7 while holding his K/9 rate steady at 8.7.
For the month of August, Hamels earned the National League Pitcher of the Month, an effort that propelled the Cubs to pick-up the veteran’s $20 million option for the 2019 season. With uncertainty surrounding both Darvish and Chatwood during the off-season, Hamels was must-need for a team suddenly in need of starting pitching.
Entering his age 35 season, not many people knew what to expect from Hamels, considering he began the 2019 season with better than 2,500 major league innings on his left arm. Throw in the fact that Hamels’ average velocity on his fastball has been declining since 2015, and it seems like a perfect recipe for over-paying a pitcher past his prime.
While Hamels will no longer be sitting 92-93 MPH with his heater, so far in 2019 he has stabilized his velocity decline, currently sporting an average speed of 90.7 MPH on his fastball through the first month of the season. In 2018, the left-hander posted the same number, but just two years ago, that figure was in the 92 MPH range.
Nonetheless his velocity, Hamels has been able to carry over his success from the second half of last season into his first six starts of the 2019 campaign. Entering play on Monday, Hamels had tossed 36.2 innings, racking up 37 strikeouts versus just 12 walks, all while posting a solid 3.19 ERA.
As has seemed to be the case over the course of Hamels’ career, when the left-hander is going good, he has his change-up working. Thus far in 2019, that remains the case as Hamels has posted some of the better numbers of his career with the offering.
Entering play, Hamels had tossed 110 change-ups, featuring it 17.7 percent of the time, a slight decrease from the last handful of seasons. Last year, the big lefty threw the offering better than 18 percent of the time, a number that increased to almost 21 percent two seasons ago. Despite the decrease, Hamels has been racking up a slew of success with the pitch, holding opposing batters to an .067 batting average prior to play.
That equates to two base knocks in 30 at-bats as hitters own a slugging percentage of only .100 on the pitch this season with an .091 wOBA to boot. As one can tell by those numbers, opposing batters are not putting many change-ups from Hamels in play as the left-hander has racked up 13 strikeouts on those 30 at-bats, numbers that help produce a 41.9 percent strikeout rate and 50.7 percent whiff percentage on what many consider to be the veteran’s best pitch.
This season, however, has not been all change-ups for Hamels. The left-hander entered play throwing his cutter and curve-ball right around the same amount as his change-up. While he is not enjoying as much success on those offerings as he is his change-up, the left-hander has maintained solid numbers.
Entering play, opposing batters were sporting a batting average of just .222 on Hamels’ cutter with a solid .407 slugging percentage. In addition, Hamels had racked up a strikeout rate of 16.7 percent on the offering, entering play with a lackluster whiff percentage of 12.5 percent. On his curve-ball, both of those numbers jump dramatically, increasing to 45.5 and 36.8 percent respectively while opposing batters have averaged only .227 on the pitch prior to play on Monday.
On Monday, Hamels was set to face a Miami Marlins club that loved to hit the ball on the ground. Prior to first pitch, the Marlins were hitting 48.3 percent of the ball they put into play on the ground, the most in baseball by more than 0.5 percent. While the Cubs find themselves fifth on that list, they also own the fifth highest HR/FB rate at 17.4 percent. For perspective, the Marlins rank 29th on that list with a 9.3 percent mark.
Right now, any pitcher finds a favorable match-up when facing the Marlins as they entered play with the worst record in baseball at 9-24, sporting a lackluster offense that has not done the club any favors. Perhaps more so than others, however, Hamels has been pitching right into the weakness of the Marlins’ roster. Among qualified pitchers, Hamels had racked up the highest ground ball rate in the majors at 58 percent, leading a Cubs staff that featured three pitchers in the top-18 of that statistic.
Quickly on Monday, we got a taste of that ground ball action as the first two Marlins hitters put the ball on the ground to kick-off a one, two, three first frame for Hamels. The final out of that inning came via the strikeout, with the second frame beginning the same way, resulting in back-to-back punch outs for the veteran southpaw.
To highlight Hamels’ effectiveness with the change-up on Monday, the left-hander tossed four in the first inning, garnering three swinging strikes on the offering. As the game progressed, Hamels only continued to build upon his solid first frame as the Cubs’ lineup staked him to a solid advantage.
Just a day after plating 13 runs, the Cubs hitters came out swinging on Monday. Five batters into the game, the Cubs found themselves up 3-0 thanks to the play by the middle of their order. Ben Zobrist drew the call to lead-off, promptly singling into left field to give the Cubs an early base runner.
Only two batters later, Anthony Rizzo capitalized on that lead single, drilling a 95 MPH fastball from Sandy Alcantara into the left-center field seats for a two-run home run. Sent packing at 111.3 MPH and ending up 410-feet from home plate, Rizzo’s blast in the first inning represented the slugger’s 200th career long ball and 199th with the Cubs.
While Rizzo entered play with a solid .895 OPS and 131 OPS-plus, the early portions of this season have been a grind for the Cubs’ first baseman. After April 30, Rizzo was hitting just .228 after posting a .222 batting average for the month of April. Four games into May, however, the slugger is batting .333 with an OPS north of 1.100, having hit two home runs and driven in seven runs prior to his blast on Monday.
That run now has Rizzo slashing .241/.369/.526 on the season with eight home runs and 25 RBI prior to Monday, numbers that ticked up to nine long balls and 27 RBI after his milestone home run against the Marlins. In addition, those two RBI gave Rizzo six multi-RBI games over his last eight, even more of a sign that the good version of the slugger has returned to the Cubs’ order.
Up 2-0 courtesy of Rizzo, the Cubs added a third run in the first frame with a Willson Contreras RBI single that found grass in left field. For Contreras, that RBI ran his total to 22 on the season as the back-stop found his way on base three more times on Monday, two via the walk. Those reaches move Contreras’ slash line to .312/.440/.667, numbers that would easily be career highs for the former All-Star catcher.
Staked to a three-run lead, Hamels was able to hold things down over six very solid frames. Despite letting the Marlins back into the game with a two-run third inning and allowing a game-tying solo home run in the sixth, the veteran southpaw seemed to once again be in command of all his pitches.
A RBI double and sac-fly gave the Marlins their two runs in the third while Jon Berti was able to take Hamels deep in the sixth. That home run, which came on a Hamels fastball, exited off the bat at 105.4 MPH and traveled to center field, tying the contest at three apiece.
Still the pitcher of record despite being pitch-hit for in the bottom half of the sixth, Hamels remained the pitcher of record through the frame. That was good for him because in that half inning, the Cubs were able to string together a rally without notching a hit. Back-to-back-to-back walks to Contreras, Jason Heyward and David Bote loaded the bases for the latter portions of the Cubs’ lineup.
Kyle Schwarber recorded the only base hit of the frame for the Cubs, sending a shallow single just over the head of Starlin Castro at second base and into right field. Despite a batting average in the lower-.200’s, Schwarber was able to come through in the clutch, once again putting the Cubs back in front at 4-3.
Luckily for the Cubs, their lefty slugger came through because both Albert Almora and Zobrist could not as they put two balls on the ground, the latter of which resulted in an inning-ending double play.
The plate appearance by Almora ended Hamels’ night as the southpaw continues his solid play in 2019. Of the 93 pitches used by Hamels on Monday night, 26 were change-ups, making up almost 28 percent of the offerings by the southpaw. That increased usage resulted in seven swinging strikes on the pitch.
All told, Hamels induced 13 swinging strikes, garnering at least one on five different pitches. In addition, Hamels tacked on 19 called strikes, including three with his change-up and another nine with his four-seam fastball.
Hamels’ final line looked like this: six innings, five hits, three earned runs, two walks and seven strikeouts on the aforementioned 93 pitches, running his season ERA to 3.38.
Making his return to the big league roster, Edwards worked a clean seventh frame, needing just 19 pitches (12 strikes) to record his three outs. Even after his sparkling outing, Edwards’ season ERA still sits at 20.25. For a bullpen that has righted the ship since the right-hander was shipped in the minors, Edwards’ performance on Monday was perhaps the best by any reliever that appeared for the Cubs out of the bullpen.
While it’s true that Brad Brach also worked a clean frame, this time in the eighth, that would be the only spotless outings by relievers on the Cubs’ roster on Monday night. Entering play, the Cubs’ bullpen was sporting a 2.11 ERA since reshuffling their alignment in early April. That mark was almost a full run lower than the next closest team, the Arizona Diamondbacks.
To accompany that sparkling ERA, however, the Cubs’ relievers had amassed a lofty walk rate of 12 percent since April 7, a number that represented the third highest such mark in the majors across that time frame. While that number has no doubt been troubling, the Cubs’ bullpen has posted the sixth highest strikeout rate at 27.1 percent in the majors since that same date, negating, at least in part, their struggles with the free pass.
Well, on Monday night, there was no such negation as Pedro Strop entered to close a one-run lead and run the Cubs’ win streak to eight games. Just a handful of pitches into his outing, it was clear the veteran right-hander did not have his best stuff. In a matter of minutes it seemed, Strop had walked the first two batters he faced, putting the tying and go-ahead runs on base with no one out.
For a pitcher who entered play with 11 strikeouts and just two walks across 10.2 innings, the feeling is that he can get out of the jam. That feeling is magnified when the pitcher is Strop, a reliever who has been one of the most consistent bullpen arms for Joe Maddon over the last handful of years. Unfortunately, Strop would have no magic in his arm on Monday as the right-hander yielded a single and his third walk of the inning.
That third walk plated the game-tying run, knotting the contest up at four. Two ground outs later, not only had the Cubs got themselves out of the inning courtesy of Kyle Ryan, but they had also given up the lead as the Marlins plated two additional runs on those ground balls.
After scoring three runs over the first eight innings on Monday, the Marlins’ lineup rode a shaky outing by Strop to plate three runs in the ninth to take a 6-4 advantage.
Always with an attitude of not giving up, the Cubs scraped a run back in their portion of the frame courtesy of Kris Bryant‘s second home run in as many games. Nevertheless, it would prove to be to little too late as Strop’s meltdown resulted in a 6-5 series-opening loss to the Marlins on Monday.
With their 6-5 loss, the Cubs’ seven-game winning streak is snapped as they find themselves sporting a 19-13 record on the season while the Marlins improve to 10-24 with their come-from-behind victory.
Next Up for the Cubs
The Cubs will continue their four-game set with the Marlins on Tuesday at 7:00 pm at Wrigley Field. Taking the ball for the Cubs will be southpaw Jon Lester (2-1, 1.73 ERA). Since making his return from the IL with a sore left hamstring, Lester has made two starts and looked like the best version of himself.
Across those two outings spanning 12 innings, the left-hander has allowed just one earned run on five hits while racking up 13 strikeouts versus only one walk. Eight of those punch-outs came on May 1 against the Seattle Mariners as the Cubs’ ace lasted seven innings, yielding just one hit.
Opposing Lester on the mound Tuesday will be left-hander Caleb Smith (3-0, 2.00 ERA). Smith, like Lester, finished seven innings in his last start. Against the Cleveland Indians, the 27-year-old issued one earned run on four hits while striking out eight batters versus two walks.
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