19 October 2012

2012 Orioles Retrospective: Jason Hammel

When Dan Duquette traded Jeremy Guthrie to the Rockies for Jason Hammel and Matt Lindstrom, a lot of Orioles fans were not particularly pleased. "Guthrie's the team's only real starter." "He's the O's #1 guy." And so on. Hammel didn't do much of anything in Tampa Bay, and then followed up two solid seasons in Colorado with a down year in 2011. I thought that Guthrie and Hammel could be expected to be about equally good in 2012, but that Hammel had a better chance of providing the O's with above average production. And I still ended up underestimating Jason Hammel. Boy what a difference one pitch can make.

Hammel added heavy use of a two-seam fastball to his repertoire in 2012, and it proved quite effective. Always a pitcher who could get a few groundballs, he became one of the best in the league at it (his 53.2% groundball rate was 9th in the AL amongst pitchers with at least 100 IP). That improvement allowed Hammel to post the lowest home run rate of his career (0.7 HR/9). When he had gotten groundballs in the past, it was usually with his off-speed stuff. This year though, it was with that sinker; almost 60% of the time that that pitch was put into play, it was on the ground.

Normally there might be some sort of trade-off keeping the ball on the ground and getting strike-outs, but not only did Hammel keep the ball in the yard but he also set a career high by striking out 8.6 batters per nine. After being around 7 K/9 in 2009-2010, that fell off to just under 5 K/9 in 2011 - so seeing a rebound (and then some) was hugely encouraging. Let's compare the whiff rate on his various pitches from this season to that 2009-2010 stretch, which was his previous best:

Year Fastball Slider Curve Change-up
'09-'10 10% 25% 37% 28%
2012 17% 38% 43% 19%

The "fastball" combines the two-seamer with the four-seamer. Breaking them out for 2012 it's 15% and 20%, respectively. As primarily a fastball-slider guy, it's easy to see why Hammel's strike-out rate jumped so much - he started missing way more bats. The sinker and the slider tend to work well together, and he started going to the slider more often this year as he added the sinker - from ~17% of his offerings to over 22%.

Hammel velocity also improved; the 93.5 mph that his fastballs (both similarly) averaged this year was a career high. The change-up, though he only used it sparingly, was up to over 88 mph. Power pitchers who also get groundballs are pretty rare. Here's the list of guys with at least a 50% GB rate, a 93+ mph fastball, and at least a 7 K/9 from this year: David Price, Edison Volquez, and Jason Hammel.

All that, and his control didn't fall off a cliff either. While a 3.2 BB/9 isn't great (and it's worse than the low-to-mid 2s he posted in '09-'10), it's perfectly serviceable for a guy who brings everything else to the table that Hammel did (and is actually better than the 3.6 BB/9 from 2011). Here's the list of guys with the GB/K/velo numbers from above who also walked fewer than 5 guys per nine: David Price, Jason Hammel. That's it.

It's truly a shame that a knee injury kept Jason Hammel out from almost all of the last month and a half of the season, because he was on pace to have the best season of his career (2.9 fWAR in 118 IP translated to about 4.2 fWAR in 170 IP - he had between 170 and 178 IP each of the three previous years). Hammel came back for the playoffs though, and largely picked up where he left off; 11.1 IP, 11 K, 4 UIBB, 3.18 ERA.

There are certainly some doubts about what Hammel will do next year (he's under team control for one more season - another nice bonus from the trade) given his history, but I think he's just not the same pitcher he used to be. While a 3.43 ERA, 3.29 FIP, and 3.46 xFIP might not happen again, there's good reason to think he can be an above average starter in 2013. And if he's able to stay a little healthier, that might even translate into a more valuable season. It's been a while since the O's have had an Opening Day where they could be pretty comfortable throwing their #1 out against whoever the opposing team has, but that might be the case next year.

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