Let me say up front that it would be a mistake to treat last night’s start like a referendum on Jason Hammel’s spot in the postseason rotation or the postseason roster. With respect to the rotation, it was already a virtual lock that, assuming health, the four Cubs playoff starters would be Jake Arrieta, Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks, and John Lackey, and last night doesn’t really change that.
As for Hammel’s spot on the playoff roster, last night’s performance – within the context of his last month or so – certainly does factor into the decision-making process, but deciding, flat-out, that last night was the “final straw” or any such thing is silliness. You want to take as much information as possible before making a decision, and that will include how well other pitchers are looking at that time, how the entire roster is constructed, and how the Cubs think Hammel would pitch as an emergency long reliever in the playoffs (relative to other multi-inning guys).
So, all that said, boy has it been a rough stretch for Hammel, including last night’s drubbing by the Brewers.
In six starts immediately following the All-Star break, Hammel’s results were incredible: just 4 earned runs over 38.0 innings. Of course, that was aided by a low .215 BABIP, an unthinkably high 96.2% left on base rate, and an extremely-low 5.6% HR/FB rate. But the 24.1% strikeout rate was nice, and the 8.5% walk rate was passable. On the whole, he was solid.
Notably, five of those six starts took place at Wrigley Field, and the one of the road was probably the worst of the bunch. (That’s been a season-long trend for the most part, as Hammel’s posted a 1.77 ERA at Wrigley Field, and a 5.26 ERA on the road.)
And then the last four starts happened. Although he had a nice start against the Pirates in there (at home), his three nightmarish road starts were bad enough to give him a 9.35 ERA over those 17.1 innings.
Together with the rest of his starts for the year, we’re looking at this right now for Hammel: 3.50 ERA, 4.38 FIP, 4.37 xFIP, .264 BABIP, 77.6% LOB, 43.2% groundball rate, 13.0% HR/FB, 20.3% K rate, 7.8% BB rate.
The scary thing in all of this is that Hammel’s peripherals have always portended looming regression, since very early in the season. While he had some nice contact numbers (basically the same as last year), they were never anything quite like Arrieta or Hendricks, so it was always a bit easier to presume that he was benefiting more from the Cubs’ stellar defense (and good fortune) than the other pitchers. Pick a number, any number at all, from this year, compare it to last year, and it’ll tell you the same story: Hammel’s strikeout rate is down, his walk rate is up, his BABIP is down, his LOB% is up, and so on and so on. He’s been better at getting groundballs this year, which is not nothing, but it’s not enough to make up for the other stuff. So, when you see an ERA that is still 24 points lower than last year, well, you get a little nervous.
Where do we go from here? For now, you see how the next couple starts go, and you see how he looks. Is he getting smacked around because he’s leaving his pitches up like he was last night? Does he not have a feel for all of his pitches, so that hitters are not off-balance or deceived at all? Is he still having a ton of success at Wrigley Field, and serious trouble on the road?
Being that Hammel was not likely to make the postseason rotation to begin with, there’s a very fair question here about whether his presence in the bullpen makes the Cubs better than, say, Mike Montgomery or Trevor Cahill would. I’m not ready to concede anything in one direction or the other, but if everyone on the Cubs is healthy come October, those are the tough dividing line decisions that will have to be made.
Remember: the Cubs will probably have seven relievers on the playoff roster, or eight at the most. Assuming health, you’ve got to figure that Aroldis Chapman, Hector Rondon, Pedro Strop, Carl Edwards Jr., and Justin Grimm have five of those spots down cold. That could leave just two or three spots for guys like Hammel, Montgomery, Cahill, Travis Wood, Rob Zastryzny, Joe Smith, and Felix Pena.