Please, Hammel, Don’t Hurt Us: Do We Need to Worry About the Right-Hander’s Sliding Performance Down the Stretch?
Yes, my title is a play on Please Hammer, Don’t Hurt ‘Em, MC Hammer’s 1990 LP that spawned “Can’t Touch This” and was the first rap album to be certified diamond (10 million sales). Of course, the absence of a comma before the artist’s name basically makes it a commandment to make him happy without doing harm to others, but who I am to get pedantic all these years later? My title is also a play on a post I wrote not too long ago about Jason Hammel’s emergence as a very good pitcher for the Cubs.
It’s only been three months since my earlier take but…gosh, kind of a lot’s changed since then. Since Hammel’s hammy was tweaked in a game against the Cardinals prior to the All-Star game, he’s gone from hurting opponents to hurting his own team’s chances. At first blush, you might look at the Cubs’ record during games Hammel has started and think things are perfectly fine. Better, in point of fact.
For instance, the team was 4-3 in the 7 games Hammel had started prior to that aforementioned post but then went 3-7 over his next 10 starts, up to and including the 1-inning outing against the Cardinals during which he suffered the hamstring injury. In the 6 Hammel starts since, however, the Cubs are 4-2. No reason to worry, right? Well, not so much.
Hammel was excellent during that first stretch of games, posting a 3.11 ERA with a 3.32 FIP, .99 WHIP, and a 6.83 K/BB ratio. But he was absolutely lights-out during the middle group, as evidenced by a 2.67 ERA, 2.91 FIP, .91 WHIP, and 10.05 K/9. So the team’s record was not necessarily indicative of Hammel’s individual performance.
That trend becomes alarming, however, when we look at this most recent 6-game run, during which the big righty has put up a 5.33 ERA, 5.67 FIP, and 1.67 WHIP. His 8.67 K/9 is still pretty solid, but there’s another little issue that really came to a head after festering for some time: walks. Despite the increased strikeouts in that hot stretch I mentioned above, Hammel’s K/BB rate went from 6.83 to only 5.33 as compared to his first 7 games.
But wait, there’s more! Over the last 6 contests, that K/BB ratio has plummeted to 2.60 under the burden of a 3.33 BB/9 mark that would rank among the 10 worst in baseball if carried over an entire season. You could say that the increase in walk rate is due in part to several abbreviated outings, but there’s sort of a chicken-and-egg thing going on here too in that Hammel wouldn’t have been pulled had he been performing well.
I wrote last week about the reason Joe Maddon has been pulling Hammel early, surmising that it’s been a proactive measure to avoid seeing the pitcher just get absolutely shelled as his stuff diminishes the third time through the lineup. On Tuesday, however, the Tigers were the ones being proactive. Two of their first batters hit home runs, sandwiching a Miguel Cabrera shot that was called a homer but changed to a ground-rule double due to fan interference upon review.
If you recall, or if you just clicked to read, I pointed to increased contact vs. Hammel’s slider as the culprit for his shaky performance of late. Those two first-inning homers: sliders.
“It was one of those nights where it seemed like they knew what was coming,” Hammel said after the outing.
I’d say that’s a good way to describe a 3-inning stint that saw Hammel face 19 Tigers and allow 5 runs on 9 hits, three of which left the yard. Normally spot-on with his assessment of the game and his players’ performance, Maddon had a hard time putting his finger on the root issue.
“For me, it’s almost like, to describe it, he’s trying way too hard. I think he’s trying to overthrow a little bit to compensate,” the skipper lamented.
Hammel tried to temper that observation a bit though, saying, “Effort-wise, I don’t feel like I’m doing anything different and I’m not trying to overthrow.”
The numbers might have a little something different to say about that, Jason. While it could be dismissed as anecdotal and indicative of a small sample size, Hammel has been throwing his slider quite a bit harder over the past 6 starts. While a jump from 83.5 mph average velocity to 85.5 might not seem like a lot, it could be part of what’s causing the drop in efficacy of the pitch.
It’d be nice if a pitcher could just go out and immediately, but that’s just not the case. Last night’s game was a perfect example of that, as Hammel struggled mightily to control his slider. Of the 15 times he went to the pitch in the 1st inning (out of 31 total pitches), Hammel threw 7 balls but got 3 swinging strikes and 1 called strike. The other 4 times: 2 fouls and 2 home runs. He wasn’t fooling any of the Tigers hitters at the outset, but things did improve as the game continued.
Hammel threw the slider 6 times in the 2nd, getting a foul, two swinging strikes, two fly-outs, and only one ball. Okay, so that’s a major improvement, though the fastball still got roughed up pretty good. In the 3rd inning, it appeared as though Hammel had rediscovered his out pitch. He threw the slider 10 times in that, all for strikes (6 fouls, 4 swinging), though I suppose it should be noted that he was facing the bottom of Detroit’s order.
But even setting the strength of the hitters aside, I was struck by the differences in location between the 1st and 3rd innings as shown in the results Hammel got. He just didn’t have any feel for the slider early on, and it showed in a very bad way. I wrote before about the slider getting hit more often, but I didn’t really get into much depth in terms of the whys and hows of that increased contact. Below is an attempt at exactly that, starting with the increase in velocity I discussed already.
While Hammel doesn’t admit to overthrowing, it does appear that’s been doing exactly that since coming out of the All-Star break and the leg injury. Then again, throwing the slider with a bit more velocity could be a good thing…if the location is on point. The two heat maps below illustrate how Hammel has hit his spots both before and after the hammy tightened up.
As with the velocity chart, the numbers here might not look all that different. But the difference between a bad pitcher and a good one, or a good pitcher and a great one, isn’t necessarily illustrated by big numbers. We could be talking about mere fractions of inches that separate a grooved pitch from a darting weapon no bat can touch. As such, I’d like you to pay special attention to the areas just below the bottom of the zone and extending up and across to the left as you view the chart.
A good slider from a right-handed pitcher should break down and away from a right-handed hitter, and we can see that Hammel’s got a bright red square in that corner of both heat maps. But we can see from the more recent chart that he’s not doing nearly as good a job of tucking his pitches away. Look at the square immediately adjacent to that low-and-away corner, how it jumped from 6.28% to 9.11% between the two samples. That trend continues in many other areas much more friendly to hitters, especially righties.
But don’t take my word for it, just take a look at the results. While righties’ numbers against Hammel were pretty static through the first four months of the season, there’s a marked increase from the middle of July on. The chart below only shows batting average, but I can assure you those for slugging and ISO look even worse.
So we’ve clearly seen that the results have not been favorable for Hammel since his injury and it’s obvious he’s not locating his slider nearly as well as he was earlier in the season, but is there anything we can point to in terms of mechanics that may have predicated this shift? Admittedly, this is the point at which I’m wading into deep waters. I’m no expert when it comes to pitching mechanics, so this next part may involve a little conjecture.
The charts below illustrate both the horizontal and vertical release points of Hammel’s fastball and slider. I know I’ve not devoted any time to the fastball here, but I’m really just using it for the sake of comparison in these cases. Personally, I find that it makes the charts a little easier to read.
Given the deviation evident in the horizontal release point graph, I’m not inclined to read much into the results in terms of how they might translate into what we’re seeing from Hammel right now. The vertical release point information, however, might reveal a little more.
As you can see, Hammel appears to be throwing from a more elevated point than he has all season. Whether that has anything to do with the increased velocity, I don’t know, but I’m inclined to toss that idea aside due to the static fastball velo from before and after the injury. In continuing with the “little change” theme, I could see two ways this higher release point might be hurting the slider’s efficacy though. In order to do that, I’m going to give you one…more…chart.
Let’s take a quick look at the vertical movement of Hammel’s slider.
Hey, it’s moving more. That’s good, right? Well, yes, but here’s where that whole release point thing comes into play again. While the pitch is showing more break (.45 inches on average) in August than it did in July, Hammel is releasing it at a relatively higher point (.96 inches on average). So if a pitch starts out an inch higher but only breaks half an inch more, might that account for the higher concentration of pitches up and away from that outer corner?
For what it’s worth, horizontal movement has remained relatively static.
My final thought on this is that perhaps that elevated release point is giving hitters a better look at the slider out of Hammel’s hand, enabling them to be more prepared for it. To paraphrase Hammel, it seems as if the hitters know what’s coming. Again, this is simply my amateur breakdown of what I’m seeing on the field and in the box score, combined with what I’m picking up through charts. All that said, I feel pretty confident in saying that I’m pretty sure there’s something wrong with Hammel.
The good news is that I also think the rough patch he’s going through is merely the result of some mental and mechanical flaws that can be corrected with relative ease. I say mental because I get the sense that Hammel is pressing a bit out there. He is trying to put a little something more on his slider and I think that’s gotten him into some bad habits. He just needs to dial it back a bit and focus more on location than velocity. Easier said than done though.
The Cubs are still in a great spot right now and they can do some real damage down the stretch and into the playoffs with the lineup they’ve got. But as we saw last night, even a team full of mashers is going to have a hard time coming back when you spot the other team 5 runs. And while it’s possible to make a run in the postseason with a limited rotation, it’s going to be really hard to get there on only two arms.
I think it’s appropriate for fans to be a little concerned about Hammel’s pitching over the last couple months of the season, though I don’t believe anyone needs to be in a state of panic just yet. Heck, the guy could bust out in his next start and go on a tear through September and October for all I know. For now, I’m going to remain cautiously optimistic that he’ll bounce back here pretty soon. Hammel is, after all, too legit to quit.