Before his debut with the Cubs last night, Cole Hamels had allowed 25 earned runs over his past five starts, and I was worried that a bad first impression might sour him for most Cubs fans, regardless of how he looked going forward. First impressions – especially negative ones after a fresh transaction – are hard to shake.
Turns out, I worried about nothing.
Swings and misses. pic.twitter.com/QdwIWuEV9w
— Chicago Cubs (@Cubs) August 2, 2018
Hamels may have gone only 5 innings last night – he fits right in! – but the Cubs’ newest starter was quite good: 5.0 IP, 3H, 2BB, 0ER, 9K, 95 pitches. And to be sure, he almost certainly could’ve kept going, but Joe Maddon loves to bring guys out on a high note when they’re coming back from an injury, debuting in the big leagues for the first time, or making their first start with a new team. It’s a psychological move that I tend to agree with and is something Maddon does often. So no surprises there.
Oh, and also, the defense made three errors behind him, so that’s kinda like an entire extra inning that Hamels had to pitch anyway.
And again, that start was really freakin’ good – historic even:
Cole Hamels had quite a @Cubs debut, allowing 0 ER and striking out 9 while also notching a hit at the plate.
Only other pitchers to do that in their first game after switching teams?
Nolan Ryan (1972 Angels)
Roger Clemens (2004 Astros)
John Smoltz (2009 Cards)#EverybodyIn
— Stats By STATS (@StatsBySTATS) August 2, 2018
Last night, Cole Hamels finished his @Cubs debut with 9 strikeouts and 0 ER.
Only 3 other Cubs pitchers have done that in their debut since ER became official in the NL in 1912.
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) August 2, 2018
So what was working for him last night? Well, according to Hamels, himself, his changeup has been a work in progress all season long, but started paying off last night. And big surprise, he’s right. According to Brooks Baseball, Hamels’ changeup generated an impressive 9 whiffs on the evening, which is probably why he threw it way more last night (29.5%) than he has this season (19.9%).
As for the changeup improving as the season has gone on, consider that he cracked the 30% whiff rate on that particular pitch just five times through his first 15 games, but has now down it in five of his last six contests, including last night. And while it’s completely possible – likely, even – that he’s simply gotten a better feel for it lately, I can’t help but think his ever-increasing fastball velocity has played a significant role.
I mean, would you just look at this:
Sure, he might’ve been at his highest four-seam average (94.2 MPH) of the season* last night because he was especially amped to be with his new team and show off his stuff: “You want to be able to win a game for your new team and the guys here,” Hamels said. “They’ve been playing outstanding baseball all season, and you kind of want to get in the mix.” But this is a trend that began a while ago. In fact, I don’t doubt its role in the front office’s pursuit of Hamels in the first place.
*As a matter of fact, the 94.21 MPH four-seamer he was hurling last night was his highest average velocity in a start since October 6, 2016.
And in case you’re missing the disconnect to the changeup, it’s simple: when there’s a strong spread between the velocity of your fastball and changeup (to an extent), the latter pitch is harder to time. This is why Kyle Hendricks tends to be at his best when his fastball is in the upper-80s. It’s not like he’s burning that past people, it’s that it makes his changeup play better.
Altogether, Hamels recorded 14 whiffs last night and struck out 9 batters, behind only his second start of the season (11Ks).
But it wasn’t just his K/BB ratio getting him by. Hamels also managed contact extremely well. For example, two-thirds of the balls in play were on the ground last night, which is his highest total of the year. He also generated matching 22% soft and hard-hit rates, both of which are much better than his season averages. In fact, his 22.2% hard-hit rate is almost exactly HALF of what he’d been allowing (44.3%).
So, Hamels was throwing as hard as ever, using his changeup as good as ever, whiffing batters left and right, keeping everything on the ground, and inducing a ton of weak contact.
Was he excited? You betcha: “I know he’s excited, we’re excited,” said Maddon. “He could be a tremendous difference-maker for us.”
But don’t take Maddon’s word for it, Hamels is very open about how much he loves this team:
Cole Hamels: “This team’s awesome. They really have some great guys, the young personalities and the veterans keeping a good team morale. The energy is up and that’s just something you thoroughly enjoy. When games matter, everybody’s focused, everybody’s having a good time."
— Patrick Mooney (@PJ_Mooney) August 2, 2018
And that’s a good thing, because although we love just about everything these guys do, I could see some harder-nosed pitchers getting a little annoyed. For example, in the top of the first inning with runners at first and second and two outs, Anthony Rizzo trotted out to the mound with catcher Willson Contreras and apparently chimed in with pitch selection: “I think all three of us were trying to call pitches,” Hamels said. “It’s good when you can get some good input from the first baseman … He told me what to throw, and I’m on it.”
Now, Anthony Rizzo may be the greatest reliever of all-time, but a veteran like Hamels probably knows (and I’m literally laughing out loud as I type this) what he wants to throw at any given point. This team, man. I love ’em.
By game score, that was Hamels third best start of the season, and I expect to see a some more of that going forward. You can’t count on him to be the top-of-the-rotation stud he once was, but former aces ALWAYS have the ability to spin gems every now and then. And in between those starts, he just needs to give the Cubs a chance to win when he takes the mound. So far, so good.
Cole Hamels walking into the clubhouse today after a 9K, 0ER debut for the Cubs: pic.twitter.com/F4xTXm2cl4
— Michael Cerami (@Michael_Cerami) August 2, 2018