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Cubs Tue Apr 29 2014

Why Has Jason Hammel Been So Good?

Cubs_200.pngAfter a 2012 season that saw Scott Feldman's ERA spike over 5.00, the Cubs took a shot on him for a one-year deal worth $6 million in 2013. Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer looked at his tape and stat sheet and thought he was a bit unlucky. Despite the high ERA, they saw a guy in Feldman who had a career high strikeout rate per nine innings, and a career low rate in walks per nine as well.

Their gamble paid off in spades. Feldman kept that strikeout-to-walk rate close to his career high from the season before, and he rebounded with a 3.46 ERA and 1.14 WHIP in the 91 innings he threw before being dealt to Baltimore for Jake Arrieta and Pedro Strop. Feldman pitched almost exactly the same amount of innings (91 vs 90.2), with nearly identical hits allowed (79 vs 80), strikeouts (67 vs 65) and walks (25 vs 31), and his ERA in Baltimore ended up nearly a full point higher at 4.27. The Cubs took advantage of Feldman's good fortunes, and turned him into a pair of pitchers that could make a difference for the organization in the years to come.

After missing out on Masahiro Tanaka, the Cubs had a void in their rotation and for the second year in a row handed out a $6 million deal to an American League pitcher they were hoping would rebound. Jason Hammel now leads all MLB starters in WHIP at 0.69.

So it must be a repeat from last year, right? The Cubs took a pitcher that experienced some bad luck, signed him to a moderate deal, and are hoping he turns his luck around en route to dealing him for more pitching prospects around the trade deadline. Nope, not even close.

Hammel's best season actually came two years ago before his season ended early following a knee injury. With high hopes in 2013 of repeating what he had done in 2012, he faltered massively. His strikeout rate tumbled to a career low (as a starter), and without a drop in his walk rate, his ERA for the season jumped to 4.97 and he lost nearly a month worth of starts due to an elbow issue.

The difference with Hammel this year isn't a simple stroke of luck. It's a fundamental change in the way he pitches. And it has nothing to do with an increase in velocity either. In fact, the opposite is true. He's throwing each of his pitches more than 1.5 MPH slower than he was during his best season of 2012, and slower than his down campaign last year.

Instead, it's the rate of pitches he's throwing that have been the main difference:

FT = Two-Seam Fastball (fastball that typically moves to the pitcher's arm side with sink)
FA = Four-Seam Fastball (typically a faster, straighter version of the fastball)
SL = Slider
CU = Curveball
CH = Changeup

2011 (COL): 4.76 ERA

FT: 13%
FA: 48%
SL: 17%
CU: 11%
CH: 11%

2012 (BAL): 3.43 ERA

FT: 35%
FA: 28%
SL: 22%
CU: 10%
CH: 15%

2013 (BAL): 4.97 ERA

FT: 30%
FA: 31%
SL: 21%
CU: 10%
CH: 8%

2014 (CHC): 2.08 ERA

FT: 56%
FA: 9%
SL: 26%
CU: 7%
CH: 3%

In his two down years with this current pitch mix (2011 and 2013), he threw his four-seam fastball more than any other pitch. During his best season in 2012, he threw his two-seamer more often. A clever catch by the Cubs front office that they might have shared with Hammel upon his signing, and have exploited in his first five starts to an extreme degree. He's basically turned himself into a two-pitch guy -- a change that has resulted in a near career-high strikeout rate coupled with a staggeringly low walk percentage.

Hammel might or might not be the latest Cubs player to be signed and flipped for a solid return in prospects, but his surge in production has nothing to do with luck. It's because he made a calculated decision to pitch differently than he ever has before. Hopefully he can continue his dominating start for his benefit, and for the Cubs -- whether they end up trading him or not.

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