When 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).
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.