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jason hammel cubsWhen the Chicago Cubs started pursuing Jason Hammel this offseason, one of the reasons I was particularly intrigued was a look at how his seasons have played out the last two years. In 2012, he was quietly fantastic, and in 2013, he struggled (partly due to the arm issue, probably).

Here’s what I said:

It was a mixed bag in Baltimore, with an effective 2012 (3.43 ERA over 118 innings, 2.69 K/BB) and a down 2013 (4.97 ERA over 139.1 innings, 2.00 K/BB). Interestingly, the results weren’t all that flukey. Hammel was actually very good in 2012 (3.29 FIP, 22.9% K rate, relatively normal BABIP and HR/FB rate, and a 2.6 WAR in just 118 innings), and very bad in 2013 (4.93 FIP, 15.7% K rate, normal BABIP, slightly elevated HR/FB).

The biggest difference for Hammel in 2013? His groundball rate took a nosedive, from a very nice 53.2% in 2012 to just 40.1% in 2013. Couple that with the slight uptick in HR/FB rate (more fly balls, and more of ‘em going for homers), and you’ve got a guy who went from giving up 9 homers in 118 innings in 2012 to 22 in 139.1 innings the next year.

Why did it happen? Well, I’m not sure it if was intentional, but Hammel seemed to rely much more heavily on his four-seamer than his two-seamer last year, the latter of which can generate more groundballs for some pitchers. His velocity was down slightly, but not enough to account for the dramatic drop-off in performance. Could “fixing” him really be as simple as suggesting more two-seamers?

Well, if getting that groundball rate back up by relying more heavily on two-seamers (which acts as a sinker for Hammel) is the ticket for Hammel, he recently suggested he’s got that on his mind.

In discussing his exhibition debut with the Tribune last week, Hammel specifically mentioned his use of the sinker, and implied that he could use it quite a bit more this year. As the numbers suggest, Hammel has been at his most effective in recent years when incorporating that sinker heavily. It makes me happy, then, to hear that he’s already thinking about utilizing it this year. We’ll see early on if that’s Hammel’s focus this year, and if he’s getting that groundball rate back up.

Although groundballs go for hits a little more often than flyballs, they rarely go for extra bases. And sometimes, they generate two outs. That is all to say, groundballs are a good thing. And if Hammel generates a whole bunch of them this year, the Cubs are going to be very happy with their one-year investment.

The Cubs, under Chris Bosio as pitching coach, seem to have had some success in ticking up groundball rates for pitchers generally, so there is a reason to believe this could be a very nice combination. After coming to the Cubs, the groundball rates for all of Scott Feldman, Edwin Jackson, Travis Wood, and Paul Maholm increased, and Jeff Samardzija’s has climbed rapidly over the last two years.

  • Edwin

    I thought I heard that one of the reasons he moved away from his sinker was that it was causing him arm issues.

    • terencemann

      I think the taboo about sinkers and splitters are that people think they’re tied to arm issues or that they don’t hold up well with age. I do not know if there are stats to back that up.

      • Edwin

        I think it probably depends on the pitcher.

      • C. Steadman

        agreed, sinkers/2-seamers are pretty easy on the arm, he throws a slider so if one of his pitches “caused” any troubles it’d be his slider

        • Edwin

          I don’t know if any pitch is ever really “easy” on the arm. I think it’s more a pitcher by pitcher basis. Some pitchers can throw sinkers all day, and it’s fine. Others might throw a sinker and have arm or shoulder pain. I’m just trying to figure out why, if the sinker was working well for him, he moved off it. Arm trouble could be a reason.

          • C. Steadman

            Sorry, meant easier on the arm than his other pitches(like his slider).

  • Edwin

    It’s odd the blurb from the tribune mentions that he mastered it against LH hitters. Normally a sinker is pretty platoon heavy, so I wouldn’t think it’d help him as much against LH, unless it makes his fastball more effective.

    Did Jason give any reason why he moved away from the sinker in 2013?

    Also, in case anyone is interested, Fangraphs had a couple articles on Hammel and his Sinker from after the 2012 season:

    http://www.fangraphs.com/blogs/can-jason-hammel-keep-handling-lefties/

    http://www.fangraphs.com/blogs/pitcher-study-jason-hammel/

  • Funn Dave

    Seems weird that they’d broadcast what he’s working on. “Hey, hitters–if you face Jason Hammel this year, get ready for more 2-seamers than last year!”

    • Edwin

      Actually, not too weird. Pitchers do this quite frequently. They add or subtract pitches during spring training, or announce a change in their pitch mix. Besides, if Hammel really was throwing more 2-seamers, it’d probably show up in the advance scouting regardless, so I don’t think they’re giving away too much. If nothing else, maybe it plants a seed of doubt into a hitter’s mind when they step into the box, at least at first.

      • Funn Dave

        Alright, I’ll allow it.

  • Darth Ivy

    Hammel has a great agent!

  • psu415

    Brett, what was your source for the decrease in 2-seamers last year? Was that a fangraphs thing? If so, what was the percentage drop? It’d be interesting to see what the results of his 2-seamers were last year as well. Maybe some of those HRs went off of a bad 2-seamer? Or did they really go off a slider or 4-seamer?

    • Funn Dave

      That would be quite interesting–and might explain why he stopped using them so much, which is suspiciously not mentioned in the piece.

    • Edwin

      According to brooks baseball, he went from 31% sinkers in 2012 to 26% in 2013.

  • Javier Bryant

    Carrie Muskat ‏@CarrieMuskat 1m
    The #DBacks have returned RHP Marcos Mateo to the #Cubs, per Rule 5 guidelines

    • Sandberg

      Thanks for playing, DBags!

  • Noah_I

    I’d say in order of results a pitcher can get, not looking at where the ball in fact ends up, you’d go in this order from best to worst: K, infield fly ball, ground ball, fly ball, walk, line drive. And there’s a pretty big gap between all of those aside from K and IFFB.

    I only point this out because Travis Wood has an odd ability to induce IFFBs.

    With that said, for the vast majority of pitchers, yeah, do everything you can to increase ground balls, especially if you can do it without significantly reducing K rate.

  • ChiCub23

    This is top notch analysis.

    • http://www.bleachernation.com Brett

      Well thanks.

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