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Jason Hammel Goes to the Back of the Line

Jason Hammel went from Opening Day Starter to Back of the Rotation in a little more than half a season. Why? And what should we expect going forward?

Jamie Squire

"Huston Street ended up with the loss, but give Hammel credit for the choke."

-- A friend of mine, a Rockies fan who was in the stands for Game 3 of the 2009 NLDS

Jason Hammel seemingly turned it around last year, and he was deservedly lauded for it. Because he hadn't been a good pitcher to that point, much of the credit was given to a two-seamer that he started throwing. (PITCHf/x classifies it as a sinker, so that's the term I'll use going forward.)

As a reward for his good year, he was given the Opening Day start and the #1 slot in the rotation in 2013. We hoped and we hoped (and we hoped some more), but it turns out that Hammel has not been able to sustain the adjustments he made last year. As a result, the new league caught up to him and finds himself demoted to #5 starter.

What Happened?

We can't know for sure, but it seems Hammel benefitted from facing unfamiliar hitters, pitching in a less-offense-prone (than Coors Field, anyway) park, developing a new pitch, and a bit -- just a tiny bit -- of luck. Now that he's faced the same batters for a year and what little luck he got has swung the other direction, it seems his true talent is showing itself.

I say all this because in 2013, Hammel is pitching as if 2012 never happened. Specifically, he is:

  • Striking out fewer batters. Last year, he struck out 23% of batters. That's CC Sabathia-esque. It's also well above his career K rate of 17%. Which is perhaps why, in 2013, he's struck out only 16% of batters.
  • Getting fewer groundballs. Last year, he induced ground balls in over half of his plate appearances (53%). In 2013, that number has dropped sharply to 41%, which is more in line with the rest of his career. It also puts him in the bottom tier of AL starters. This is despite throwing his newly-acquired sinker about as frequently as last year.
  • Stranding fewer baserunners. Last year, he stranded nearly 74% of baserunners. This was also an outlier; his strand rate was around 67-69% in his previous full seasons. In 2013, it's down around 70%, which is about league average.

So Hammel's now a flyball/line-drive pitcher with a below-average strikeout rate. Not surprisingly, fly balls in OPACY tend to leave the yard. And that's why Hammel has a 15.3% HR/FB rate at home.

A couple notes here:

  • Remember that Hammel missed some time last year due to injury. I think if he'd pitched all of last season, we'd have seen this decline sooner. But since he was out for a month, we are seeing it only now. We were conditioned to think that his 2012 was the new norm.
  • For giggles, his BABIP this year is .310. That's high, but it's about what it was during his full seasons in Colorado. Meaning we can be reasonably sure that luck isn't a factor here.
  • His sinker isn't really to blame. Opponents' slugging % against Hammel is up all around, but it's his slider that's taken the biggest beating since last year. Hitters slugged .217 against it last year vs. a whopping .471 this year. As Gary Thorne would say: "Mercy!"

Going Forward

Are there any silver linings to this story? Aside from the fact that he got demoted already, I do see a couple:

First, he's decent on the road:

  • His xFIP on the road is 4.10 vs. 5.32 at home.
  • His K/BB is 2.59 on the road vs. 1.32 at home.
  • His HR/FB is 12.2% on the road vs. 15.3% at home.

Second, his curveball has been good this year. Hitters are slugging only .115 against it.

Third, he's walking batters less frequently this year than he did last year.

Fourth, well, he's only signed through this season.

Random musings:

  • I wonder if being the #5 starter will make it easier for Buck to ensure Hammel starts mostly on the road.
  • I wonder if Hammel would benefit from dropping two of his pitches in order to improve the three he'd have left. He's a five-pitch pitcher now, but only his curveball is any good, and that's probably only because he throws it so infrequently that it surprises hitters. Switching to fastball/sinker/curve or fastball/sinker/slider might improve his chances at OPACY if he can harness enough discipline to improve the quality of those pitches.
  • I do kind of feel bad for Hammel that he started his career in a hitters' ballpark and was traded to another one. Maybe he can ask his agent to give the A's, Padres, Giants, Dodgers, or Mariners a call? I think all of those teams have ideas of competing in October this year.

It sure looks like the Jason Hammel doesn't have the skill to sustain his success from 2012. He will have to reinvent himself again if he wants to succeed going forward. Otherwise, it's hard to see why the Orioles would want him around after his contract expires this year*.

At the very least, I hope Hammel misses the O's mid-August series against the Rockies.

More from Camden Chat:

* this article originally stated that Hammel's contract was up after 2014