If the pitcher for whom they traded went by a different name, the Cubs’ deadline acquisition of a 34-year-old starter with a 5.20 FIP, 4.72 ERA, and near-replacement 0.3 WAR likely wouldn’t have merited much attention. Even knowing that the pitcher in question was Cole Hamels, one could still be forgiven — in light of the left-hander’s recent track record — for a lack of optimism.
A couple weeks later, Hamels has produced three pretty great starts for Chicago. And while, when the Cubs’ traded for Hamels, there was some thought that a more friendly ballpark, better defense, and easier league would all benefit him — and possibly have benefited him — the fact is that he’s also just pitching a lot better than he did with the Rangers.
To get a sense of this version of Hamels versus the Texas one, consider the numbers from his average start with the Rangers this year relative to the three he’s recorded with the Cubs.
Between the relatively high left-on-base percentage and relatively low BABIP, Hamels has probably benefited from a little bit of luck — although the quality of the Cubs’ defense is also a possible factor here, as well. It’s also quite possible the change in park is benefiting Hamels, as he has yet to concede a home run with Chicago after giving up around one per game with Texas.
That said, Hamels has also struck out an extra batter and walked one batter fewer per appearance. That sort of thing probably resides outside the influence of mere environmental changes. And while it might be a result just of random variation, there is some evidence to suggest Hamels is pitching better in his last three games than at any time during the season.
Likely having no direct relationship to the change of scenery is the matter of Hamels’ velocity. As the graph below reveals, he’s throwing the ball harder as a Cub.
Hamels hadn’t topped an average of 94 mph per start since 2016. He’s alerady done that twice in three starts with the Cubs. Added velocity can only help Hamels. Even as he entered his 30s, Hamels put up good marks by this measure, averaging 93-94 mph from 2014 to -16. When he lost some velocity last year, however, his numbers suffered. When the velocity remained lower over the first half of this season, he continued to struggle. He’s throwing harder with the Cubs and, likely as a consequence, has done a better job of getting batters out.
It isn’t just the bump in velocity that appears to have helped Hamels, though. There’s been a change in approach, as well. The biggest difference for the left-hander in terms of pitch selection has been increased usage of the four-seam fastball — at the expense of his sinker, particularly — over the last two starts.
Prioritizing the four-seam over the two-seam seems to have slightly pre-dated the trade Chicago: three of Hamels’ last five starts for the Rangers have a similar disparity. Nor did usage change emerge in any real way during Hamels’ first start with Chicago, either. Over the last two starts, though, the four-seam fastball has been a lot better — and it isn’t just velocity. Hamels has changed the ball’s location, too. The heat map below shows where Hamels was throwing his four-seam to righties with the Rangers and now with the Cubs.
These images are from the pitcher’s perspective. One finds that, with the Rangers, Hamels threw his four-seamer middle and away; with the Cubs, meanwhile, he appears to be making a concerted effort to go inside against righties. Look at the first pitch of the game on Sunday night against Trea Turner.
It’s an inside fastball. Now, look at the second pitch.
Another inside fastball. Now look at the third pitch.
That one was way inside. Hamels then threw a curve down the middle that Turner fouled off. Here is the final pitch of the at-bat.
That pitch was clocked at 96 mph. Hamels threw four fastballs to Turner, and all of them were inside. The harder he throws, the more comfortably he can work inside without the hitter turning on the pitch. And while the sample for Hamels’ secondary pitches remains quite small, he seems to have thrown his changeup out of the zone a little bit more.
Whether this is signal or mere noise, it’s too early to say, but the Cubs’ version of Hamels looks like a pitcher who is attempting to induce more swinging strikes. So far, it is working: Hamels has recorded a whiff on nearly one-third of his changeups with the Cubs. That’s only a bit higher than with the Rangers, but Hamels has given up seven homers on the pitch this year, so pitching further down could help keep the ball in the field of play when contact is made.
Of Hamels’ 23 homers this season, 16 have come against either the change or four-seam fastball, and 22 of 23 homers have gone against righties. The narrative concerning Hamels’ departure from Texas for Chicago centered around the benefits of leaving the Rangers’ ballpark. While we shouldn’t dismiss that narrative entirely, there’s probably more to it than that. Hamels was probably just throwing too many pitches in the middle of the plate, and those pitches tend to get hit the hardest.
Simultaneously increasing the velocity on his fastball and getting the ball inside to righties seems more likely to help Hamels’ home-run troubles than a simply move to Wrigley Field. Keeping his changeup lower should have similar positive effects. A four-seam fastball on the hands and a change low and away leaves a lot of plate for hitters to cover. Cole Hamels seems to have made some early adjustments that have helped him succeed for the Cubs. It remains to be seen if hitters can adjust back. If Hamels is regularly throwing in the mid-90s and hitting his spots, however, those adjustments will be hard to make.
Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.