If at first you do succeed, well, shit, you might as well keep doing it, right?
Last year the Cubs signed Scott Feldman to a one-year, $6 million deal. It wasn’t the kind of signing expected to take the Cubs to the next level, but rather one made to eat some innings during the regular season. Then, if things went well enough, and Feldman performed, flip him before the trade deadline for something useful.
And that’s exactly what happened. Feldman had a very good season with the Cubs. He was coming off a down year with the Rangers in 2012, and took full advantage of the National League, posting a 3.46 ERA in 15 starts with the Cubs. He was then traded to Baltimore in early July for Jake Arrieta and Pedro Strop.
So the Cubs turned a minor investment in Feldman into Strop, who might end up serving as their closer (albeit an extremely volatile one) and Arrieta who just might end up as the team’s fifth starter this season.
Now the Cubs will try the same with Jason Hammel. It was announced they had signed Hammel to a one-year deal, worth around $6 million on Friday. And there are indicators that Hammel could be in line for a Feldman-like bounceback at Wrigley.
Hammel certainly has a ceiling, but for the most part he’s been average the last five seasons, going 42-44 with a 4.51 ERA, 1.39 WHIP and an ERA+ of 100. He was very effective in 2012, however, going 8-6 with a 3.43 ERA and an ERA+ of 123 in 2012 before missing the last few months of the season because of knee surgery. Then 2013 came and his results were quite different, as he posted an ERA of 4.97 and an ERA+ of 85, seeing his strikeout rate drop from 8.6 to 6.2 and giving up home runs twice as often.
In 2012 Hammel’s groundball rate was 53.2%, and that number dropped to 40.1% in 2013. Which no doubt led to his home run rate climbing rapidly. Now, there could be any number of reasons for this, but there was one difference I noticed in looking at his numbers. While Hammel relied on his fastball just as often (he threw it 60.4% of the time in 2012 compared to 60.2% in 2013) the kind of fastball he threw definitely changed.
In 2012 Hammel threw his four-seam fastball 27.5% of the time, while 34.5% of his pitches were the two-seam fastball. A fastball that’s more likely do induce a groundball due to its late, downward movement. In 2013 those numbers changed, as Hammel went with the four-seam 30.6% of the time and the two-seamer 29.4% of the time. He also relied on his changeup more often, which he had shied away from since his time in Tampa when he just wasn’t very good.
I can’t help but notice that Hammel’s worst ERA+ seasons occurred when he threw his changeup more than 8% of the time, though I think it would be silly to pin all the blame for his performance on a pitch he rarely uses. Still, I think there’s something there that Hammel and the Cubs should pay attention to.
What I think can make a difference is having Hammel rely on his two-seamer more often. He’s never going to be a high-strikeout pitcher, as his career percentage of swinging strikes is 14%. That being said, you know what season he had his highest swinging strike rate? Yep, 2012, when he was going to the two-seamer more often he saw his numbers jump to a career high 18% swinging strike rate and 8.6 strikeouts per nine innings.
So maybe “fixing” Hammel is as simple as changing his pitch selection. It won’t transform him into a top-of-the-rotation starter, but it could make him into an attractive trade target come the summer.
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