On Monday night, Cole Hamels delivered the latest in a string of marvelous pitching performances and led the Phillies to a victory over the Atlanta Braves.  Brilliant performances by Hamels have not been rare throughout his career, and yet less than a year ago, many Phillies fans were ready to send him out of town.

A brief history lesson:

Hamels was the leader of the Phillies pitching staff in 2008 and helped carry the team to a World Series championship.  He looked like an emerging young ace, and everyone expected huge things from him in 2009.

2009 didn’t go quite as planned.  Possibly more than any other Phillie, Hamels felt the negative effects of a long postseason run.  His innings pitched had jumped considerably in 2008, and he decided that his arm needed extra time to recover.  Because of this (and perhaps partially because he was distracted by his new found celebrity) he delayed the start of his offseason training program.

Hamels felt he would be able to compensate during Spring Training, but due to some arm soreness (which may have been a result of the lack of training), he wasn’t able to fully catch up.  Needing extra time to prepare for the season, he missed the first few games.  When he finally debuted, his arm strength wasn’t nearly where it had been, as he was only throwing in the high 80s as opposed to the low-to-mid 90s that had been his career norm.

While he did show flashes of greatness throughout 2009, he couldn’t consistently recapture his strong 2008 form.   Even worse, he appeared to lose some of his mental edge.  In the 2008 postseason, many lauded him for being “fearless” and “unflappable” on the mound.  But in 2009, there seemed to be several occasions where bad calls or fielding errors noticeably affected him, and he appeared to lose his composure.

Tellingly, after a poor World Series start, he told reporters that he couldn’t wait for the season to be over.  While he meant that he simply wanted a fresh start after an uneven season, many fans took the quote to mean that he was giving up on 2009.

By most people’s estimation, 2009 was a disappointing season for Hamels who finished with a 10-11 record and a 4.32 ERA.  

But there was one group who countered that Hamels’ actually performed as well in 2009 as he did in 2008: the sabermetricians (or statheads as some like to call them).  They argued that the decrease in Hamels’ numbers was not due to poor performance, but rather due to bad luck and circumstances beyond his control.

Statheads discount many of baseball’s traditional statistics, most notably pitcher wins.  They claim that wins are too dependent on outside factors.  To some extent this is true, as a pitcher can receive little run support, or his bullpen could blow the lead, leaving him without a win even though he pitched well.

When judging pitcher peformance, statheads often refer to statistics that can supposedly measure how lucky a pitcher was.  Some examples are batting average on balls in play  (BABIP) or home runs per fly ball (HR/FB).  Supposedly, the pitcher has little control over these, and over time, they will typically revert to the league average.  So if a pitcher has a poor record, and either of these values deviate too much from the mean (as both did for Hamels), it just means that the pitcher was unlucky, not that he pitched poorly.

I can understand the statheads’ belief that statistics can provide a deeper understanding of the game and player value.  But what statheads don’t seem to always comprehend is that using statistics without any context to go along with them can be equally misleading.

Take a look at these two hypothetical scenarios:

Scenario 1: In the second inning of a 0-0 game, the home team’s pitcher gives up a solo home run.

Scenario 2: In the eighth inning of a 2-2 game – immediately after his team has scored two runs to tie the game in the previous half inning – the home team’s pitcher gives up a solo home run.

Statistically, both cases are the same, as only one run has been given up, and the team is facing a one run deficit.  But in reality, which case is worse?  I think most baseball fans would tell you that the second case is much worse. 

A solo homer in the second inning doesn’t seem especially harmful.  While it isn’t great to be playing from behind, the team still has eight chances to make up the run.

In the second case,  it is undoubtedly a bit deflating for the team knowing that the comeback they just staged was for naught.   Even worse, they will now only have two chances to erase the deficit.

What does this tell us?  That sometimes whether or not a pitcher wins the game can depend on factors beyond what the stat sheet indicates.

There seem to be quite a few pitchers who pitch just well enough to lose.  Their stat lines might look good, but they don’t do the things necessary to win games, or they give up runs like in the second scenario, and as a result, the team loses.

There’s something to be said for pitchers who know how to win games.  Pitchers who can do the little things like bunt runners over, field their position well, and hold base runners on give their teams a better chance to win games.  Winning pitchers also seem to be able to deliver big pitches in key situations.

For instance, why does Roy Halladay win so many games?  First, he almost always pitches deep into the game.  The longer a starter goes, the less of a chance his bullpen has to blow the game.  If a pitcher pitches a strong game, but can’t get out of the seventh inning, he has less room to complain about a blown lead.

Halladay also seems to have the ability to bear down in big spots.  I can recall multiple occassions when he was in a jam, and induced a double play to escape.  Was the double play a result of luck, or because Halladay delivered a pitch resulting in a ground ball?  I tend to lean towards the latter.

What does this have to do with Hamels?  At times in 2009, Hamels looked like a pitcher who didn’t do all the things necessary to win games. He seemed to lack mental toughness.  If a call went against him, or things started to go poorly for the team, he didn’t seem to lack the ability to bear down and set things right.

It wasn’t bad luck that caused him to fall apart in his World Series start against the Yankees.  After Alex Rodriguez gave up a cheap home run, Hamels could have recovered.  Instead, he gave up three more runs, one of which was scored via a base hit by the opposing pitcher.  Did bad luck cause him to give up the hit, or was it due to him overusing his curveball, which he considers to be his third best pitch?

That World Series outing summed up Hamels’ 2009 season.  He seemed prone to giving up home runs at important moments, and giving up hits to players who shouldn’t have been able to touch him.  Was he unlucky?  Yes, I think he was somewhat.  But was that the main difference between 2008 and 2009?  I don’t believe so.  I think it had much more to due with not being able to strike out hitters consistently, and not delivering big pitches in key situations.

Regardless of the cause for his 2009 downturn, as we approach the end of the 2010 season, Hamels once again is pitching like a dominant ace.  What changed?

Part of the reason for improvement is the Phillies’ additions of fellow starters Roy Oswalt and Halladay.  Both of those pitchers have pitched like aces, and that puts less pressure on Hamels.  When a team only has one ace, there is often tremendous pressure on him to win.  He knows that if he doesn’t, the team is faced with the prospect of a losing streak.

But when you have multiple aces like the Phillies do, there is less pressure on each of them.  They may also start to feed off of each other, trying to top what the others have done.  This certainly seems to be the case with the Phillies’ trio.

Even without the addition of the two Roys, I’d say that Hamels would have improved simply because his arm strength appears to be back.  His fastball is once again reaching the mid-90s, and that makes his changeup more of a weapon.  If hitters aren’t worried about catching up to a fastball, then the changeup won’t be able to fool them enough to be effective.  That might have been the difference between getting a strikeout and batters fouling off pitches as they were too often doing in 2009.

Hamels also made a point to expand his pitching repertiore.  Up until 2010, his main pitches had been the fastball and changeup.  He occassionally threw a curveball, but it was generally ineffecitve (as shown in the World Series).  His coaches advised him that he would need another pitch to keep hitters offguard.  With no significant breaking pitch to worry about, hitters – especially lefthanders – seemed more able to lock onto this pitches.

Hamels worked to improve his curveball to help neutralize lefties, and in addition he worked to develop a cut fastball to use against righties.  (Side note: I always get a kick when announcers refer to the cut fastball as a cutter.  “These hitters are no match for the cutter!”)  In theory, these pitches would make hitters far less comfortable sitting in and waiting for a fastball or changeup.

Early returns were not especially promising, as in the early months of the season, Hamels didn’t seem to have great control of his secondary pitches.  The curveball and cutter were either getting hit, or else he would mount deep pitch counts because he was wild.

To his credit, Hamels stuck with the new pitches.  He could have said, “Forget this.  I was World Series MVP with only two pitches.  The new stuff isn’t working, so I’ll just go with those two.”  But instead, he worked through the problems, and now seems to be a much more complete pitcher.  He appears to be even better than he was in 2008.

Ironically, throughout most of the season, his win-loss record didn’t necessarily reflect his improvement.  He was receiving pathetically little run support and even lost multiple games by a 1-0 score. 

Now this may seem strange, since I just warned against discounting wins due to “bad luck.”  But here’s the thing about luck for a pitcher: If he is truly pitching well, it will eventually balance out.  Lately, the Phillies have been giving Hamels adequate run support, and as a result, he has started winning games again.

So I will offer praise to Cole Hamels.  He may have had a poor (and maybe somewhat unlucky) 2009, but he worked to improve himself, and the Phillies are now reaping the rewards.

Originally posted on my blog: Stranger in a Strange Land

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