The Market Was Stacked Against Jason Hammel

Jason Hammel isn’t yet officially a member of the Royals. He still has to pass a physical, and we’ve been burned before when we’ve jumped the gun. Yet the odds are that Hammel will soon officially join the Royals, and he’ll do so on a two-year guarantee worth $16 million. I’ve personally never signed a two-year guarantee worth $16 million, and I can’t imagine I’m going to, unless FanGraphs gets incredibly popular. Hammel is coming out of this with a nice chunk of change.

On the other hand, we’re a week into February, meaning spring training is right around the corner. Hammel got two years where he really wanted three, and this offer might not have even existed were it not for a horrible accident claiming the life of Yordano Ventura. The Royals were more or less forced into this position, and the offseason for Hammel wasn’t what he thought it would be. Looking back, I suppose there’s not much mystery. Hammel’s representatives were fighting something of an uphill battle.

We can start easy. What’s one reason why Hammel might not have been able to draw much of a market? He’s 34 years old. Teams tend to shy away from making significant commitments to players Hammel’s age. There are exceptions, in the cases of really really good players, but Hammel is only really really good relative to you. In the majors, he’s basically average, and 34-year-olds get worse. Sometimes, they stay the same. But then they get worse. Everybody gets worse.

Then there’s the matter of the Cubs declining Hammel’s option. This was sold as a great gesture, and it even probably was. The Cubs were said to be honoring an arrangement where they wouldn’t trade Hammel or limit his future earnings by putting him in the bullpen. But Hammel’s option was for only $12 million, and it came with a $2-million buyout, meaning it would’ve cost the Cubs just $10 million to pick up. Teams were inevitably going to react with skepticism. Hammel ended last season with elbow discomfort, and other teams weren’t sure he was okay.

Tying into that, Hammel leans heavily on his slider. It’s a good slider, and Hammel knows it, and he throws it more than a third of the time. Last season, 181 starters threw at least 50 innings. Hammel had the sixth-highest slider rate among them, and sliders have a negative perception when it comes to a pitcher’s longer-term health. Teams weren’t sure if Hammel’s arm was sound, and the slider rate to some extent justified the concern. Even now, the Royals can’t be totally sure Hammel can hold up.

And there’s one more interesting twist. On the matter of Hammel’s stamina and durability — for his career, he has a 3.99 first-half ERA, and a 5.06 second-half ERA. I’ll grant that ERA isn’t a good statistic. I’ll also grant that season half splits are quick and sloppy. But a lot of people around the league think of Hammel as a pitcher who wears down, and for some evidence, over the past two decades, there are 184 pitchers who have thrown at least 500 innings in each half. Here are the 10 worst splits by OPS allowed.

Second-Half Decliners, 1997 – 2016
Pitcher 1H OPS 2H OPS Change
Chris Sale 0.588 0.682 0.094
Nate Robertson 0.756 0.848 0.092
Jason Hammel 0.721 0.805 0.084
Johnny Cueto 0.641 0.725 0.084
Edinson Volquez 0.709 0.787 0.078
Edwin Jackson 0.743 0.811 0.068
Jered Weaver 0.662 0.729 0.067
Brad Penny 0.733 0.791 0.058
Josh Fogg 0.794 0.852 0.058
Chris Capuano 0.746 0.802 0.056
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference
Minimum 500 innings pitched in each half.

There are some good pitchers on that list, like Sale and Cueto. They don’t suffer from the same kind of perception problem. But Hammel’s split is indeed enormous — it’s the third-biggest out of everyone, where the total pitcher pool has an average split of -0.001. Hammel had problems down the stretch last year. He had problems down the stretch the year before, and he lasted just 4.1 innings over two playoff starts. Plenty of teams like the idea of Jason Hammel as a starter, but you just can’t know what you’ll have in September.

I don’t know how much of this is fair, versus how much of this is random noise. Much of Hammel’s ugly split comes down to quality of contact allowed, and that can bounce all over the place. But something we don’t talk about enough is the stretch-run and playoff bonus that gets built into certain contracts. High-leverage relievers get more money, and front-of-the-rotation starters get more money, in part because they’re being compensated for postseason value. Even though no team is guaranteed to make the playoffs, there’s always some chance, and you know which players might become more important in October.

With a guy like Hammel, you very well might not want to use him in October. You might not even trust him in September or August. It’s not that that’s certain, and it’s not that he doesn’t help a team out in the earlier months, but as the games get more and more important, the idea is that Hammel gets less and less reliable. And to an executive, that’s negative value. It means Hammel might not help if your own team makes the playoffs, and it means another team might not want Hammel so bad in the event your team has to sell near the deadline.

In short, Jason Hammel suffers from a perception problem. His age, his stats, his being left off the Cubs’ playoff roster — it all informs a general lack of trust in his ability to keep pitching well as a season wears on. For the Royals, maybe that means this is a buy-low opportunity on a legitimate No. 3 starter. Heaven knows that would help fill a void. But this is a risk, a risk that reminds us to consider just what a team is paying for. The best baseball seasons stretch for seven months, and they don’t all mean the same thing.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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Choos on first
7 years ago

The Royals definitely had a strong need after Ventura, but at the price he ended up going for, I really wish that the Indians had snagged him. Salazar and Carrasco have both had health/consistency issues, and Hammel is definitely better than Tomlin. I would have thought that after the rotation was exposed in the postseason (even though the fill-ins performed well), that the Indians would have been in the market for a mid-rotation arm. Just seems like such a missed opportunity for them.