Cubs’ Need for Quality Pitching Leads to Cole Hamels

In late July, basically every contender is in pursuit of starting pitching in some form or another, whether it’s an ace who can make an impact in the playoffs or a rotation piece who can help the club survive the duration of the season.

That’s certainly the case for the Chicago Cubs. While the club actually does currently have five experienced and healthy starters — plus Yu Darvish — what they need most is quality starting pitching. The team’s starters have put up a 4.76 FIP and accumulated just 3.0 WAR, ranking 25th in baseball and outpacing only the Reds by that measure in the National League. It has quite possibly been one of the franchise’s worst rotations ever so far. And even after accounting for Cubs’ above-average defense, the team still only places in the middle of the pack in terms of run-prevention. In order to give themselves the best possible chance of qualifying for the postseason, Chicago needed better starting pitching.

Last night, they attempted to meet that need, reaching an agreement with the Texas Rangers to acquire left-hander Cole Hamels.

In Hamels, the Cubs receive a pitcher who’s recorded a good road ERA while having performed less well in a very tough pitcher’s park. It stands to reason, as Buster Olney himself reasoned yesterday afternoon, that a change in scenery alone — to a better park, to a league without the designated hitter — might lead to much better performances for Hamels. While there might be something to that, it’s important to remember that similar sentiments accompanied Tyler Chatwood’s arrival in Chicago. Now Hamels is probably taking Chatwood’s job.

After the Cubs signed Chatwood to a three-year, $39 million deal over the winter, he drew comparisons to Charlie Morton. Whatever fixes the Cubs might have tried this season, they haven’t worked . After 19 starts, Chatwood’s FIP is 5.57, 35% worse than league average and 98th out of the 99 pitchers who’ve recorded at least 90 innings. His 4.98 ERA isn’t much better, about 20% worse than league average and 89th out of 99 pitchers. Chatwood has 85 walks and just 82 strikeouts on the season. It will take weeks and probably into September before another pitcher beats his walk total. Only Wade Miley had more walks all of last season. He’s also averaging under five innings per start and completed six innings in just three of 19 outings.

Given Chatwood’s struggles, the bar for Hamels to clear is fairly low in terms of representing an improvement. That said, this season has not been a good one for the former ace. In 20 starts, Hamels has pitched 114.1 innings with a 4.72 ERA and 5.20 FIP, barely above replacement level. Despite the disappointing season, he’s still been about half a win better than Chatwood. The Cubs would not have made this trade if that was the totality of the upgrade they expected to receive. Vintage Hamels is expecting too much, but it is possible he was being unduly hurt by homers in his home park.

Hamels has given up 1.8 homer per nine innings this season, a figure that ranks 78th out of 80 qualified pitchers. At home, that number is an even more enormous (2.4), while on the road, it is a reasonable 1.1 per nine innings. Using Statcast, we can get a rough estimate about how many home runs Hamels has given up at home that might be considered unlucky. The home runs with less than a 50% chance of going out in a neutral park by launch angle and exit velocity are highlighted below.

Cole Hamels Home Runs at Home
Game Date Batter Pitch Dist Launch Angle EV MPH HR%
2018-07-23 Stephen Piscotty CH 375 38.7 100.6 26%
2018-07-23 Jonathan Lucroy FC 408 23.6 99.4 22%
2018-06-25 Jose Pirela CH 384 23.2 108.6 93%
2018-06-25 Manuel Margot FC 424 26.4 106.2 92%
2018-06-07 Alex Bregman SI 397 26.9 100.7 58%
2018-06-07 Evan Gattis CH 415 27.6 104.9 89%
2018-05-27 Salvador Perez CH 394 36.9 102.7 51%
2018-05-27 Drew Butera FA 353 24.2 95.3 2%
2018-05-22 Miguel Andujar FC 402 23.9 103.6 88%
2018-05-22 Gleyber Torres FA 399 37.4 104.9 69%
2018-05-05 Mitch Moreland SI 35.5 100.4 35%
2018-04-24 Mark Canha SI 376 27.0 99 43%
2018-04-08 Kendrys Morales FA 404 19.6 106.2 34%
2018-04-08 Steve Pearce FA 393 32.6 108.5 92%
2018-03-29 Jake Marisnick FA 397 31.2 105.8 87%
2018-03-29 George Springer FA 364 25.4 104.6 85%
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

A few homers of the homers here are probably of the cheaper variety. Even if we were to eliminate every homer below 50%, though, Hamels would still have a 1.5 HR/9 at home. We can’t simply eliminate Hamels’ home numbers when evaluating him as a pitcher. It’s not that easy. Looking at the quality of the contact Hamels has given up, we see that his xwOBA at home is .365 while his xwOBA on the road is .347. That’s a smaller gap than his home and road ERAs would suggest and seems to indicate that Hamels isn’t pitching significantly better on the road compared to home. He’s just been a bit unlucky at home, allowing a .312 BABIP while recording a 68% left-on-base rate. On the road, those figures are .277 and 77%, respectively.

With the Cubs, Hamels won’t be just the pitcher we’ve seen on the road, and he won’t be the massively homer-prone pitcher we’ve seen at home. He will be both. Hamels’ strikeout and walk numbers have been solid this season. It’s also reasonable to expect the elevated home-run totals, which are the main cause for his poor overall numbers, to come down — just not all the way down to the 1.1 HR/9 he’s allowed on the road.

Hamels’ fastballs have been hit pretty hard this year, but that has always been true. Against his four-seamer, hitters have a 125 wRC+ for Hamels’ career and a 119 wRC+ against his sinker. Hamels has always been able to use his great offspeed offerings to balance out the fastballs. That has still been true this season, but there’s some reason to believe that his fastballs are eroding a bit with age, even if the velocity is decent. Here’s Hamels’ swinging-strike rates from our pitch splits page on his fastballs over the course of his career.

On plate appearances that have ended with the four-seam fastball, Hamels has given up twice as many walks (16%) as strikeouts (7%). The fastball isn’t an effective pitch for Hamels right now. It’s possible the Cubs can help improve it by further emphasizing the offspeed stuff and using the fastball more up in the zone as a change of pace. All of his offspeed offerings, including his cutter and a new slider, have been effective pitches, but Hamels has had a difficult time establishing the fastball. That’s still going to create problems for him and will probably make him a bit homer-prone. If the Cubs are expecting the magic Hamels has shown on the road or an encore performance of his start at Wrigley back in 2015, there is likely to be disappointment. As far as an upgrade over Tyler Chatwood and the potential for a league-average starter, the division-leading Cubs just made their team a good bit better the rest of the way.

Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.

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5 years ago

“Quality pitching” and “Cole Hamels” in the same sentence…