Later today, Cole Hamels, the Cubs’ biggest trade deadline acquisition, will make the fourth start of his Cubs career. And I think I’m not alone in expecting something special. I mean, hey, that’s all he’s done so far, right?
Through his first three starts with the Cubs, Hamels has been nothing if not dominant. He struck out nine Pirates in his five-scoreless-inning debut on August 1, he walked just one batter in his six innings of one-run ball against the Royals on the 6th, and most recently, he allowed just one hit over 7.0 innings of one-run ball against the Washington Nationals while striking out nine in the Cubs’ best start of the year.
Together, that’s two earned runs (1.00 ERA), 4 walks (5.8 BB%), and 20 strikeouts (29.0 K%) in 18.0 innings pitched. You can’t ask for much more than that.
And you also definitely couldn’t have expected it even if you did ask.
While I’m sure the Cubs front office saw things they liked in Hamels – this was, after all, their second attempt at acquiring him – and while there were certainly reasons to believe he could perform much better with the Cubs than he’d showed so far this year, I don’t think anyone expected it to go quite this well. Hamels had a 4.72 ERA (5.20 FIP) before the trade, and his acquisition appeared to be more about filling innings as Yu Darvish continued to rehab, Tyler Chatwood slid into the bullpen, and Mike Montgomery approached higher and higher inning totals.
There was hope, of course, that pitching in a (sometimes) friendlier ballpark, in front of a superior defense, on a competitive team, during a playoff race, would play a role – and each probably has – but Hamels has far surpassed expectations nonetheless.
At FanGraphs, Craig Edwards takes a deeper look into Hamels’ immediate success with the Cubs, crediting a (so-far) successful effort to turn into more of a swing and miss pitcher than he had been earlier this season. And it’s a really good read. Part of the explanation, as Edwards sees it, is due to the little bump in fastball velocity Hamels has enjoyed since coming to the Cubs, which has allowed him to pitch inside more often. That sets up his changeup out of the zone, which has, itself, turned into more whiffs. But there’s more to it than that, and it’s worth a read to see the full take.
Of course, the one drawback to this particular revelation (velocity -> inside fastball -> out-of-zone change-up -> swings and misses) is that it’s predicated on the velocity bump of a 34-year-old pitcher, who’s lost velocity in recent years and theoretically could again at any moment. For a super small example of how that plays out consider his last two starts: When Hamels was averaging 94.0 MPH his last time out, he recorded a 15.3% whiff rate and 9 strikeouts. But when it was just slightly depressed two starts ago (93.3 MPH), his whiff rate dropped to 8.3% and he struck out just two batters. Of course, you’re talking about just two starts there, so it could be a fluke … which is also kind of the point.
To be fair, we’ve already discussed how a veteran with a wide, consistently-executable repertoire of pitches like Hamels can work around lower velocity starts where things aren’t quite firing on all cylinders … like he did in that second start (6.0 IP, 7H, 1BB, 2KK, 1ER), but all things equal, you prefer the high-octane version of the guy, who can get swings and misses, too.
So if you get a chance before today’s game, I definitely suggest giving Edwards’ piece a read for some more details. That way, you’ll know what to look out for at the beginning of Hamels start tonight.