Cole Hamels Has Not Been the Cubs’ Justin Verlander … He’s Been Better

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Cole Hamels Has Not Been the Cubs’ Justin Verlander … He’s Been Better

Chicago Cubs

“That’s one!” I yelled to my friends from our seats along the first base line at Wrigley Field in the top of the 9th inning last night. Only it wasn’t. After a replay review, Cole Hamels’ first out of the 9th was overturned and we were bummed: we wouldn’t get to see a complete game.

Those fears multiplied when we saw someone trot out of the Cubs’ dugout when it became a two-on, no-out situation. But to our relief, that mystery coach (it was pitching coach Jim Hickey) and mound visit was nothing more than a check-up and led to first out, a strikeout, of the inning. Good. Good. But our relieving sighs were fleeting, because almost immediately Hamels was facing Tucker Barnhart with the bases loaded and one out in the ninth, with well over 100 pitches thrown.

No matter what, we thought, this batter – even with one out – was going to be it. And it was. Hamels got Barnhart to ground into a 5-3 double-play, taking David Bote to the bag, before firing to first. Complete game -> witnessed.

It may sound like I’m overreacting a bit to a complete game – it wasn’t a no-hitter after all. Heck, it wasn’t even a shutout.

But that’s not really the whole story. Hamels tossed the first complete game for the Cubs since September 24th of last season (and his first since August 5, 2017) and we just rarely get to see, let alone be in the stadium for, pitching performances like that anymore.

It usually takes a veteran to convince a manager or coach to leave him in, and they really have to be much more efficient (let alone dominant) than they would’ve had to be 10 years ago. Hamels was all of it last night, even after 24 pitches and a run in the first inning.

Hamels has also been everything the Cubs could have possibly hoped for when they traded for him at the end of July. Actually, the probably would have been totally unjustified in hoping for anything close to this.

People have joked that Hamels could be to the Cubs what Justin Verlander was to the Astros last season, and there’s really no doubting the similarities – formerly dominant true aces perhaps watching their elite career fade gently away as they hit their mid-30s … only to be jolted back into a shade of their earlier form by a young, hungry, playoff-bound team.

But maybe that comparison is unfair.

To Hamels.

Justin Verlander was excellent both immediately after the Astros traded for him last year and also into the postseason. We can’t know what Hamels will do in the playoffs, but as far as the immediate aftermath goes, Hamels has Verlander beat, and it’s not even close.

Hamels just completed his fifth start with the Cubs, and that’s how many regular season starts Verlander made with the Astros last year.

First Five Starts After the Trade

Verlander: 34.0 IP, 1.06 ERA, 2.69 FIP
Hamels: 34.0 IP, 0.79 ERA, 2.36 FIP

Thanks to a complete game last night, Hamels matched the total number of innings Verlander threw in his five starts as an Astro before the playoffs, but Hamels’ ERA is a quarter of a run better, and his FIP is a third of a run better. To be fair, Verlander struck out an insane 43 batters during that stretch (35.8% to Hamels’ solid 23.8%), which is truly impressive, but there’s more to success than strikeouts (#nameofmymotivationalbook).

For example, Hamels has generated a stellar 55.4% groundball rate, and mere 20.5% fly ball rate since joining the Cubs, which would be the second and first best rates in all of baseball were he to do it over the course of the season. And, yes, both rates were in line with his short Cubs career last night. He’s also generated a ton of weak contact (20.9%) and done a nice job limiting the hard stuff (27.9%) since joining the Cubs, but that was never on display as much as it was yesterday:

Soft contact: 25.0%
Hard contact: 8.3%

An 8.3% hard-hit rate is almost laughably low for a start (let alone for 9.0 innings), given that league average is 35.5%, and the current league leader, Aaron Nola, sits at 24.7%. In other words, Cole Hamels has been an *elite* contact manager since joining the Cubs and it’s made him dominant. And it sure sounds like it’s not a happy accident.

“It’s something where you have to believe in yourself and just execute pitches,” Hamels told Cubs.com. “When you’re able to execute pitches, you don’t have to strike everybody out. I think that becomes a factor for a lot of us – when things aren’t going right, you want to strike out the world. I’ve got a tremendous defense behind me and I have to let plays happen.”

Hamels does, in fact, have a fantastic defense behind him (though, we really must admit: the defense took a significant hit when it effectively swapped Addison Russell out for Daniel Murphy) and letting them do their thing is a fine strategy, especially if you can limit the kind of contact that makes playing good defense more challenging. Let’s also not sell the guy who struck out 7 batters on 10 whiffs and walked just 2 last night short. He’s still got strikeout stuff, it’s just not necessarily the way he’s been dominating lately.

As for his velocity, our final loose end, Hamels had it all working last night. His four-seamer was averaging 93.9 MPH overall and topped out at 95.9 MPH. That’s exactly where he needs to be to find success not only with that pitch, but also his change-up, which, as we’ve explored, works so well at getting whiffs when his fastball is, you know, fast.

And the best part of the evening? That game wrapped up in under 2.5 hours, which means I was at Sluggers celebrating with the rest of Wrigley by 9:30. And I’m totally not paying the price for that this morning. LET’S GO CUBS.

(Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)


Author: Michael Cerami

Michael Cerami covers the Chicago Cubs, Bears, and Bulls at Bleacher Nation. You can find him on Twitter @Michael_Cerami