Jason Hammel has long been viewed sort of like a distance runner who goes out too fast and looks good early but then has nothing left when it’s time to kick. Only twice in his career (3.09 in 2012; 3.90 in 2013) has he posted a second-half ERA under 4.23. And the first of those numbers came over a mere 11.2 innings, so take that for what it’s worth. His disappointing 5.10 post-break ERA last season was actually the lowest among five times he’s exceeded 5.00 down the stretch.
It was business as usual here in 2016, as Hammel jumped out to a 2.58 ERA (3.85 FIP) over his first 15 starts. Only twice did he allow as many as 4 earned runs in a game, while he held opponents to zero or one earned run eight times. But that did little for the cadre of cynics convinced that a big gray cloud would soon roll in from the west to blot out the sun and rain doom down upon Hammel’s season.
It’s hard to argue with the kind of history that has the annoying knack of repeating itself. And repeating itself. And repeating itself.
Only this time, it looked as though Hammel’s second half had started early. On July 1, he took the bump in Queens and struck out three Mets while walking only two over the course of 4 innings. Oh, he also allowed 10 earned runs on 5 homers. Was that thunder off in the distance?
All Hammel has done since is allow 6 earned runs in 36 innings (1.50 ERA) over his last six starts, including an active run of 15 scoreless frames. In that same span, he’s struck out 33 and has walked only 10. Huh, looks like the front blew over and the sun came out after all. So how’s he doing it?
That, my friends, is a great question. And one I’m not sure I can answer. [beautifulquote align=”right”]Hammel’s velocity, strikeouts, walks, and contact rates are all pretty much the same.[/beautifulquote]
The stats don’t really tell us much, as there’s nothing that really jumps out. Sure, the fastball has positive value (+4 runs) for only the second time (6.9 in 2012) in 11 seasons. But Hammel’s velocity, strikeouts, walks, and contact rates allowed are all pretty much the same as always. Even a little worse in some cases. Sure, the line drive and ground ball percentages have each varied about 5% in the right direction, which has helped to produce a career-low .243 BABIP against.
I mean, sure, that possibility exists and the fear of a return to poor form probably won’t be completely eradicated until the season’s over and Hammel is tucked safely away in the bullpen* for the playoffs. It’d be nice to say I’m being hyperbolic, but I really do think most fans are watching each Hammel start as though he’s a kid they’re watching ride his bike without training wheels for the first time. Everyone’s just waiting for that wobble that finally allows gravity to lay its rightful claim.[beautifulquote align=”left” cite=””]I’ve never been on a team this good before.[/beautifulquote]
But what if, and I know this is crazy talk here, what if some of Hammel’s success is coming from confidence? We heard about the renewed devotion to physical fitness — though he still enjoys his potato chips — and we see the Jake Arrieta-starter-kit beard. Could it be that Hammel has adopted some of his teammate’s swagger as well?
“I’ve never been on a team this good before,” Hammel gushed after Wednesday’s win. “It’s kind of silly to go out and watch the guys do their work and how consistent they are. You know something’s good going to happen. We expect to win.”
Let’s be honest, Jason, most active players in the league haven’t been on a team this good before. As for guys doing their work, though, I think it’s safe to say Javy Baez and Co. have got their pitchers’ backs (No. 9 came from Hammel’s start Wednesday). I’m sure there are some real mechanical or strategic changes that are fueling Hammel’s performance, though I’m hard-pressed to discount the mental aspect of his improved consistency.
While last season’s drop-off was precipitated by a leg injury, we can’t attribute previous struggles to the same. Unless you want to lump fatigue, both physical and mental, into the mix. It’s perhaps somewhat gauche in this age of in-depth statistical analysis to give too much credit or blame to such factors as confidence or ease, but you can’t convince me that those aren’t playing a role.
Hammel isn’t pressing, isn’t trying to do too much. He doesn’t need to overthrow or fight for his spot in the rotation. And he knows that he’s surrounded by a defense, bullpen, a rotation that will be able to pick him up if and when he’s less than perfect.
*All things being equal, you’d have to assume at this point that the four-man playoff rotation would be Jake Arrieta, Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks, and John Lackey. But it’s Maddon, so who knows.