When I interviewed him in April 2013, Jason Hammel was a 30-year-old pitcher yet to hit his stride. Following his previous path, he went on to have a ho-hum season. In 26 appearances for the Orioles — 23 of them of them as a starter — Hammel had seven wins, a 4.97 ERA, and a 6.2 K/9. His two-seamer and slider showed signs of coming around, but for all intents and purposes, he was a run-of-the-mill, back-of-the-rotation righty.
That has changed. Since originally joining the Chicago Cubs prior to the 2014 season, Hammel has fashioned a 3.68 ERA and fanned 8.3 batters per nine innings. Last year, he won a career-high 15 games for the World Series champions. The cerebral 6-foot-6 hurler is now a 34-year-old Kansas City Royal, having inked a two-year, $16 million deal with the AL Central club over the offseason.
Hammel discussed his mid-career emergence, which was fueled by an improved slider and a subsequent confab with a sexagenarian guru, in the waning days of February.
Hammel on what has changed since our 2013 conversation: “A big part of [becoming more successful] was throwing a slider for a strike. It was kind of the idea of pitching backwards. Before, I never had a breaking ball that I could start with. I was throwing a curveball more than a slider, and the curveball is more of a… I get a lot of takes on it, because it’s a bigger break. I had to find something else with spin that I could put in the zone. The two-seamer has been a big, big pitch for me, and the two-seamer and slider complement each other really well, because they’re going two separate directions.
“I already had the slider, but I didn’t have as good of a feel for it — or as much confidence in it — as I do now. It grew to where I became really comfortable throwing it for a strike, almost like a fastball. That was just a matter of more reps, and the natural evolution of me as a pitcher. You learn not to try to throw a pitch. You actually pitch the pitch. You have a different grip for a certain reason — it’s going to do different things — so instead of trying to make it do that, you let it do that.
“I’ve also changed my delivery a little bit, to hide the ball and be a little more deceptive. I made that adjustment last year. In the past, I had a very timeable delivery, and for a hitter, timing is everything. If you can kind of rock with a pitcher as he is going through his delivery, you don’t have to guess, at certain points, when things are going to happen — it’s very predictable. So I closed off my stance a little bit, almost to where it looks like I’m throwing across my body. That added deception, which has helped.
“Tom House, who I worked with in the offseason, looked at my stuff, and my body of work, and threw that suggestion out there. My Achilles’ heel is that I would fly open with my front side, so he was trying to help me keep my front side in longer, and still be able to throw like I throw. That was kind of what we arrived at it.”
On learning from other pitchers: “[House] has been called the pitching guru, and I would endorse that. First of all, he does a really good job of teaching young kids how to play the game of baseball, and to understand it. And with the guys who have been doing it for while, he helps sharpen their skills. For me, it was more between the ears, and actually pitching, not throwing.
“I’m still learning the game. As big leaguers, we’re all in this game together, so we bounce things off each other. We chat about the game of baseball, and the second part of that is we chat about the game of pitching. We’re always trying to evolve and learn things. We’re also trying to be as unpredictable as possible, because once you’ve been seen so many times, you more or less have the disadvantage.
“Everybody offers something different. You’ve got Kyle Hendricks, who is ‘a pitcher.’ He’s a game manager. He’s a sinkerballer-changeup guy who goes out there and really commands the strike zone. I say he’s a diet Greg Maddux. He’s that good.
“Then you have a Jake Arrieta, who is a guy who overpowers. He’s got really, really good stuff, but he can also pitch with it. There are so many different ways to go about it. If you just sit back and watch the game, and talk about it, you learn so many things. You can draw from anyone you run into. You think about how they might be able to help you, or if there is anything you can pick up and add to your repertoire.”
On working with Kansas City pitching coach Dave Eiland and going back to the American League: “Right now he’s kind of just sitting back and watching. He’s watched some video on me, and we’ve already talked about what I just told you, which is that my Achilles’ heel is the flying open, or collapsing on the back side, and trying to do more than I need to. He’s given me some input on that. He’s a guy who’s been in the game a long time, and I think we’ll work really well together.
“I have kind of a wait-and-see approach [changing leagues]. I’ve been around long enough, and there’s plenty of video, so guys pretty much know what I offer. I don’t think I need to change too much, but at the same time, the minute you stop trying to get better is the time other guys pass you by. If you spend a long time in this game, you understand that you need to continue to adjust with your adjustments. That said, I’m very happy with where I’m at right now.”
David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.