Only six pitchers in the majors so far this season have thrown more innings than Cole Hamels, and his 3.03 ERA is pretty nice, too. Good start to the season for him, then, right? Well, not so fast. There are a number of indicators that paint the picture that Hamels may be in for a world of trouble in 2017.
I first was alerted to Hamels’ precarious situation by this tweet from the venerable Mike Petriello:
I know it's early, but 5 starts isn't nothing, and everything about Cole Hamels terrifies me. 3.03 ERA is a mirage.. 15/12 K/BB in 32.2 IP. pic.twitter.com/R1iE03dMUx
— Mike Petriello (@mike_petriello) April 27, 2017
That’s not great, especially given how consistent Hamels has been throughout his career. The drop in swinging-strike percentage isn’t necessarily totally damning though, so I wanted to investigate further. Let’s start with some of his other plate-discipline statistics.
Most of Hamels’ plate-discipline stats are trending in the wrong direction, aside from his Z-Swing%, which hasn’t changed much the past three seasons. His Zone% is the second-lowest of his career, the lowest mark having occurred last season. His Swing% and O-Swing% are both at career lows. That’s not great, either. His Z-Contact% and Contact% are both career-worst marks, and his O-Contact% in at its highest since 2009. It’s the second-highest mark of his career. None of this is encouraging.
I want to focus on two rates, in particular: his overall Contact% and his O-Swing%. Let’s start with the latter. As of Thursday, there were 80 pitchers who’d tossed at least 20 innings this season and 100 innings last season. Here’s the top-10 pitchers by O-Swing% change.
2017 min IP = 20
So, that’s not great. Only Miller and Holland have seen hitters offer at fewer of their pitches outside the strike zone this season. Overall, his 25.1% out-of-zone swing rate ranks just 97th out of 112 pitchers with at least 20 innings this season.
Let’s take a look at those pitchers who’ve suffered the largest increases in Contact%.
2017 min IP = 20
So, yeah, Hamels doesn’t fare well here, either. There’s a big gap between Hendricks and Hamels and the rest of the pack. (While we’re at it, let’s keep an eye on Justin Verlander, as he’s the only other player to appear on both of these lists.) So far, just 22 pitchers have a higher Contact% than Hamels this season, so it’s not like we can handwave Hamels’ inclusion on this list the way we can Clayton Kershaw’s. Even with Kershaw’s increase, he only ranks 86th out of 112 in Contact%. Kershaw’s inclusion here is probably just a small-sample size blip. And Hamels’ may be too! He could rebound any second now. But where there’s smoke, there’s fire.
Let’s turn to some results, shall we? After all, bad rates don’t have to mean bad production.
2017 min IP = 20
Mama, there’s that man again. And if things weren’t already looking bleak for Rangers fans, Darvish pops up on this list, too. Yey? Of the 112 pitchers who have tossed 20 innings this season, only Gausman, Blake Snell and Iwakuma have a worse K-BB% than does Hamels.
Hamels has now made five starts and struck out just 15 hitters. He hasn’t struck out more than five in any one start. This has never happened before during Hamels’ regular-season career. He’s had three other stretches of four games started with five or fewer Ks, but this new streak is a first. The first such stretch is sort of a cheat. The games spanned from Sept. 23, 2009 to April 7, 2010, spanning two seasons. In those four games, he struck out 16 batters against nine walks in 21.2 innings pitched. In a four-start stretch from Aug. 9, 2014 to Aug. 26, 2014, he struck out 19 against seven walks in 26 innings. And then finally, last season, from May 27 to June 12, he struck out 19 against 11 walks in 25.2 IP. In this season’s five-start stretch, he’s struck out just 15 batters against 12 walks in 32.2 IP.
All of this would be less troubling if Hamels were, say, a ground-ball specialist. But he’s not. I mean, he gets plenty of grounders, sure, but his 46.5% ground-ball mark ranks just 43rd out of the 112 pitchers who have pitched 20 innings this season. And that rate is down slightly from last season, when Hamels got ground balls on 49.6% of his batted balls.
It might be less troubling if Hamels had, say, a BABIP within his career norms. He doesn’t. Currently, he’s sporting a .219 BABIP that’s 36 points lower than his career-low mark — set in 2011 — and 67 points lower than his average. So we would expect that to come up some, and if it does, his margin for error will be even thinner.
All of this might be less troubling if Hamels were, say, giving up the same batted-ball distance as he normally does. But he’s not. According to Statcast, Hamels’ average distance allowed in 2015 was 163 feet; in 2016, it was 160 ft. This year, it’s 182 feet. Again, small samples, and this increase isn’t necessarily a death knell on its own, but you connect the dots and you have to feel a little nervous.
Cole Hamels has been one of the best pitchers of his generation. For his career, he’s recorded 44.0 WAR. Since he came into the majors in 2006, only five pitchers have accumulated more wins than that. Since baseball integrated in 1947, Hamels’ WAR ranks 77th out of 2,062 qualified pitchers. That’s really good! But nothing lasts forever, and there are a lot of warning signs surrounding Hamels’ early-season performance. If something doesn’t change for him soon, he may be primed for a fall. And with the Rangers already ranking just 24th in starting-pitching WAR, a fall from Hamels is something they can ill afford.