It’s may be a tad too defeatist to say the game was over before an out had been recorded in the bottom half of the 3rd inning, but Christian Yelich’s three-run homer effectively ended things. The shot rang Cole Hamels’ bell, but the lefty stayed in there like a punch-drunk fighter who couldn’t keep his hands up to protect against the blows that kept raining down him.
When Hamels did manage to throw a punch of his own, it appeared as though the Brewers had picked up on his tell and were able to counter with ease. That isn’t an accusation that the veteran was tipping his pitches, only that he wasn’t able to execute sharply and was being tagged as a result. The low changeup Yelich hammered out wasn’t a bad pitch by any means, but it appeared for all the world as though the slugger was sitting on it.
“He’s been good,” Hamels told reporters after the game. “If you watch him, he’s patient. He’s looking for pitches. I don’t know if he was necessarily looking for that pitch, but he’s good enough to be able to do what he did with it.”
Jordan Bastian has an excellent breakdown of the at-bat over at Cubs.com, but suffice to say Hamels used only cutters and changeups against the reigning MVP. The same man with 43 homers coming into the game, including one last Sunday at Wrigley against Craig Kimbrel with the same full count he faced Friday night. The man who seems to destroy everything when hitting at home.
You don’t do the things Yelich has done over the past two seasons without being an excellent practitioner of your craft, something that goes beyond “see ball, hit ball.” He has faced Hamels enough to know his tendencies and surely had a solid scouting report to boot, so when he took a change and cutter to run the count full, he had a pretty good idea of what was coming next.
“He took a really good changeup that I was throwing away,” Hamels explained. “I was really just trying to get a ground ball. So, I think in that situation, the 3-2, I threw a pitch that obviously I thought he would’ve at least gone for and that would’ve at least let me know what he was looking for.”
Go for it, Yelich did, sending the pitch out to right-center and giving the Brewers a lead they wouldn’t relinquish. The homer was Milwaukee’s third straight hit to open the inning and was part of a stretch that saw Hamels allow eight hits to 12 batters. That streak ended the following inning when Yelich singled against Hamels right after Yasmani Grandal blasted a no-doubt homer, but it probably would have continued had a pitching change not been made.
Joe Maddon had seen enough and strode to the mound in what was essentially an act of mercy. Of the nine hits the Brewers collected against Hamels, only two came against non-fastballs. Other than the Yelich homer and a Cory Spangenberg bunt single on a cutter, there were four hits against the four-seam and three against the two-seam.
The hard stuff hasn’t been quite as hard for Hamels as the season wears on, and his velocity is down noticeably from last season. After averaging nearly 93 mph on the four-seam and 92 on the sinker during his time with the Cubs in 2018, Hamels is down to around 91 on both this season. What’s more, his velo has trended down since June in a departure from last year’s uptick.
That may not seem like a big deal, and maybe it’s not, but every little bit counts when you’re trying to get batters out. And for a pitcher like Hamels who relies on the deception of that changeup, every extra tick of difference between fastball and offspeed matters. To wit, his changeup has the exact same 83.4 mph average velocity in 2019 as it did in 2018.
A dip in fastball velocity isn’t the sole culprit for last night’s loss, nor is it simply a matter of Hamels tipping pitches or the Brewers figuring him out. But all of those are byproducts of an aging pitcher battling against the erosion of his margin for error. Hamels simply can’t get away with the same mistakes he once could, a reality that has settled in firmly in the wake of his oblique injury.
The lefty has admitted to having trouble with his mechanics ($) and it’s clear that he hasn’t been able to dial them in consistently since returning from a month spent on the injured list. If there’s a positive side to all this, it’s that Hamels’ velo was up a little bit Friday night over what he’d averaged in September. The results clearly weren’t there, but things can improve if he continues that upward trend over his next few starts.
He’s going to have to do that for the Cubs to keep pace in the division and Wild Card races, since their rotation can’t afford to have multiple question marks among it’s veteran lefties. Or if they do have those questions, maybe they want to avoid letting the Brewers answer them.