When I woke up yesterday and considered that Cole Hamels was scheduled to start his second game with the Cubs, I got pretty excited. Not only is it still a little funny to me that they actually got Hamels four years after claiming him on trade waivers – a deal that would’ve felt downright momentous at the time if they’d been able to pull it off – but his abilities on the mound and whatever production they lead to the rest of the way, do ultimately matter quite a bit.
Also, I got to finally press send on the best version of this tweet, which I had been planning since his last start:
Just a little update on what the #Cubs picked up at the deadline: 26.1 innings pitched, 25 strikeouts, 5 walks, 3 earned runs.
Cole Hamels: 11.0 IP, 11Ks, 3BBs, 1ER
Jesse Chavez: 11.2 IP, 13Ks, 1BB, 2ER
Brandon Kintzler: 3.2 IP, 1K, 1BB 0ER
— Michael Cerami (@Michael_Cerami) August 7, 2018
Thankfully, Hamels did not disappoint. This time around, he went 6.0 innings, allowing just 1 earned run on 7 hits, a walk, and 2 strikeouts. Here are the highlights from the game:
Of course, despite the comparable overall success of the evening, Hamels second start looked a lot different than his first one with the Cubs. Against the Pirates last time out, Hamels may have lasted only 5.0 innings, but allowed just 3 hits and struck out 9 batters thanks – in part – to a ridiculous 14 whiffs.
Last night, by contrast, he was able to go an extra inning, but generated just 10 whiffs overall while striking out only two. That whiff total is obviously still quite strong, but he did get fewer swings and misses despite throwing more pitches overall, and it certainly felt like the hitters were less off balance than they were the first time around. So, let’s consider a couple questions: What exactly was different last night and what does it mean?
To answer, let’s start with something I wrote about Hamels after his first start with the Cubs:
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%).
Last night, Hamels dramatically reduced the deployment of his changeup (9.3%), throwing it 10 percentage points less than his season average, and 20 percentage points less than he did last time around. Perhaps he threw it less often because it wasn’t working as well (only 3 whiffs last night) and perhaps it wasn’t working as well because his fastball averaged 93.4 MPH last night compared to 94.3 MPH in his first start (less space between your fastball and changeup can neuter the latter’s effectiveness), but we’ll soon find ourselves in a chicken-and-the-egg-style loop if we don’t look elsewhere.
For a little wisdom, let’s go to Cubs Manager Joe Maddon: “His stuff is still really good and I also believe there is another level or layer of him [regarding] pitch execution,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said, per Cubs.com. “This guy physically has not lost a thing. I think it’s the execution or the selection of the pitch more than anything.”
Upon learning that Hamels did not throw his changeup very often last night, our first question probably should’ve been so what did he throw? The answer? His curveball. Before last night, Hamels threw his curveball an average of 14.5% of the time. Last night, it was up to 21.7%. That’s a 50% increase from where he usually is. And what do you know? That pitch alone generated half of the whiffs he got last night (a 23.8% whiff rate for the pitch overall).
That right there highlights much of the value of a pitcher like Cole Hamels.
Last night, Hamels threw six different pitches at least eight times according to Brooks Baseball, including a four-seamer, a sinker, a change-up, a slider, a curveball, and a cutter. When you are able to command that many pitches, you have the benefit of being able to switch from one to another if you don’t exactly have the right feel on a given night.
Whereas a younger pitcher with a robust arsenal might be able to recognize that one or more of his pitches aren’t quite working, it often takes good old fashioned experience to know which one to switch to, when to do it, and how often to throw it (let alone the ability to do it well). Your catcher, pitching coach, or manager can help, of course, but “feel” is a pretty personal thing – something you have to figure out on your own.
Last night, it seems, Hamels knew he wouldn’t be able to lean on his changeup, so he switched to his curveball, generated an impressive number of swings and misses, and got things done.
There were definitely some uneven signs from last night’s game, too (lower velocity, elevated LD% and hard%), but if we’re going there, I can just as easily point out the good (lower FB%, elevated IFFB% and soft%). And ultimately, that’s what you’re buying when you trade for a veteran like Hamels. The savvy to know when to adjust the game plan, the experience to know the direction to go, and the talent to execute those pitches at the highest level.
Sure, it won’t always work out like it did last night (the Royal are kinda awful), but when it does, it’s a thing of beauty.