Analyzing what Cole Hamels brings to the Braves’ rotation

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GM Alex Anthopoulos gave us another little (but also big) piece of excitement on Wednesday when he signed veteran starting pitcher, Cole Hamels, to a one-year, $18 million deal — who is currently ranked 7th among all active starters in wins —  leaving the Braves with just one more open slot in the starting rotation. 

 

If you didn’t follow Hamels or the Cubs in 2019, the lefty posted some pretty strong numbers for the North Siders: 27 starts, 141.2 IP, 3.81 ERA, 9.08 K/9, 3.56 BB/9, 2.5 WAR.

In fact, Hamels’ 2019 WAR total was better than all but Max Fried and Mike Soroka for the Braves, as he essentially replaces Dallas Keuchel — who Hamels tripled in WAR — in the rotation and brings an influx of consistency being that Hamels has tallied at least 2.5 WAR in all but two seasons of his career (and never a season below 1.7 WAR).

Soon to be 36-years-old (Dec. 27), Hamels isn’t the 200-inning, 200-strikeout hurler he once was way back in the early 2010s with the Philadelphia Phillies, when he was a lock for at least 3.5 to 4.0 WAR seemingly every season. No, age has turned this 4-time All-Star and former World Series MVP into more of a rotation stabilizer instead of an ace. However, you may be surprised to see that, despite the fact Hamels has labored over 2,600 innings in his 14 big league seasons, the lefty still wields several of the traits that made him such a force back in those glory days with the Phils (his 117 ERA+ in 2019 was almost identical to his career mark of 123). In fact, Hamels’ large chunk of experience over the years has made him even better in some areas. 

The famous nasty changeup and reformed cutter

For the first four years of Hamels’ major league career, he didn’t even throw a cutter, as his pitch mix featured a two-seam fastball, sinker, changeup, and curveball. He added the pitch to his repertoire during the 2010 season, and at first, it was mediocre. But by the end of the 2011 campaign, Hamels’ cutter had morphed into an above-average offering, though the hard work only resulted in the pitch falling back to inconsistency several seasons afterward. However, for the past three years (since 2017), the lefty has mastered his cutter, ranking fifth on FanGraphs’ Pitch Value leaderboard (specifically for cutters) in that span — behind only Yu Darvish, Corey Kluber, Mike Leake, and Anibal Sanchez. 

Opposing batters’ have posted a middling .206 AVG (67 wRC+) versus Hamels’ cutter since 2017, as it presents a possible weapon for the Braves, especially if he keeps increasing the frequency in which he throws the pitch. His career rate sits at just 14.8%, but over the last three seasons, Hamels has raised his cutter usage to an average frequency of 18.4%, a sign the veteran is plenty aware of its success. 

Of course, we can’t talk about Hamels without bringing up the changeup, which in 2019 rated even better than his nasty cutter (by FG’s Pitch Value). Batters hit just .159 (32 wRC+) against Hamels’ offspeed offering, including a K rate of 32%. Matter of fact, in every season of his career, Hamels’ changeup has rated as an above-average pitch, dating back to his rookie year in 2006.

I expect Braves’ pitching coach Rick Kranitz to help form a solid plan around Hamels’ elite cutter and changeup, which could lead to an even better season than the one he produced in 2019.

His “old school” mentality to pitching

Along with Hamels’ nasty cutter, the veteran offers a refreshing component to the rotation in that he doesn’t fall prey to the times-through-the-order craze of today’s game. 

Most pitchers today lose a substantial amount of their effectiveness once they face a lineup multiple times, but Hamels remains consistent regardless of his times-through-the-order. Granted, I don’t expect the Braves to count on Hamels to provide complete-games on a regular basis (though he has 17 in his career), but it’s reassuring to know that there isn’t some massive drop off once he’s deep into an outing.

In 2019, Hamels posted a 3.37 FIP when pitching to an opposing lineup for the first time, allowing a .220 AVG and 34.4% hard-hit rate. After three times through the order, those numbers didn’t budge much, as opposing batters hit .254 with a 37.1% hard-hit rate, good for a 4.06 FIP — still plenty respectable and a sign that his stuff doesn’t lose much potency. There’s no doubt that his strength in the late-innings contributed to his 141.2 innings in 2019 with the Cubs, a strong innings-total for a guy everyone keeps expecting to flame out.

And as much as we thought Dallas Keuchel was elite at maintaining his strength through outings in 2019, he was nowhere close to Hamels in that regard.

 

Keuchel 3rd time through the lineup (2019)

.314 AVG, 40.6% hard-hit, 6.70 FIP

 

Overall, Hamels’ ability to get batters out even when faced with battling a lineup multiple times should help bolster this Braves’ rotation, and allow manager Brian Snitker to keep the bullpen fresh. The fact that Hamels has averaged roughly 6.5 innings per start over his career means he’s not satisfied with the standard 5-inning outing. And for a guy that looks to be the Braves No. 3 or 4 starter (maybe a No. 2?), that’s a nice edge to have towards the backend of the pitching staff.

His success and consistency in the postseason

What most likely led the Braves to Hamels, more than anything else, is that the guy has postseason experience. 

Consider Anthopoulos’ comments on Wednesday, after signing Hamels (via ESPN):

“We’re signing Cole first and foremost because we think he’s going to help us win a lot of games… and hopefully get to the World Series.” 

 

Hamels has logged 100.1 innings in the playoffs (16 starts / 1 relief appearance), pitching to a solid 3.41 ERA while allowing a .221 AVG.  Another way to illustrate his postseason success — of his 16 starts in the playoffs, Hamels has 11 quality-starts, thanks to 8.34 K/9 and 2.42 BB/9.

And then, of course, there are the MVP awards he won during the 2008 postseason, in which he won the NLCS and World Series MVP as the Phils took home a title. In his two starts against the Dodgers in the League Championship Series, Hamels went 2-0, allowing just three runs in 14 total innings-pitched. The Phillies’ ace followed up that performance with two more starts in the Fall Classic against the Rays, allowing only four runs in 13 total innings. Altogether, Hamels’ performance in the ’08 playoffs consisted of a 4-0 record and a 1.80 ERA, as batters hit just .190 against him in his five electric starts.

I don’t have to elaborate on how vital his playoff success is. Up until the recent NLDS, the Braves’ rotation had barely any experience in the postseason. With Hamels, the team now has someone who’s not only been there but has succeeded, even better than Keuchel had. 

And as Anthopoulos also mentioned on Wednesday, that experience should rub off on the rest of the guys:

“No doubt in my mind… I think Max Fried will get better just by seeing him and being around him. I think Soroka will get better.”

I’m not going to lie; at the start of the current offseason, I was all for the Braves signing Zack Wheeler. My thoughts were that if the Braves could get a hold of Wheeler that they’d surely help turn him into the team’s ace starter. But thinking about it now, that’s what Mike Soroka is supposed to be — the Braves’ No. 1. And not just that, over the last few days, the expectations regarding Wheeler’s cost was getting a tad ridiculous — the Phillies wound up inking him to a 5-year, $118 million deal Wednesday, and it was reported by ESPN’s Jeff Passan that the White Sox offered him a contract in excess of $120 million. I’m not sure if it would’ve been wise for the Braves to pay Wheeler nearly $25 million per season for the next five years.

In the end, I think Anthopoulos did well. Signing Hamels isn’t the flashiest of adds, but it’s a safe investment that even if the guy turns into a pumpkin, nothing’s lost. Eighteen million dollars for one season isn’t going to ruin this team’s future plans, or affect its window of contention.

But Hamels is going to be okay. He has produced an incredible career and recently has started somewhat reverting to his prime years — since 2017, his WAR total has increased in each season. Even when looking at the worst season of his career (2017), Hamels still posted a 4.20 ERA, 1.7 WAR and finished with an 11-6 record. I’ll take that as a floor anyday.

It was probably never realistic to expect the Braves to shell out $100 million for a starting pitcher, not when they have so much talent currently on the fringes of contributing at the major league level. And if Hamels wasn’t your pick, it’s understandable to be a bit dissatisfied. Initially, I even was. But after spending the past several hours delving into Hamels’ numbers, it’s plain as day why the Braves chose him — he’s a proven veteran who has postseason experience and wields a strong pitch-mix. And after signing Hamels, the Braves are now just one arm away from wrapping up their rotation.

I mean, honestly, one year and $18 million is a helluva bargain considering the potential production — he was projected to receive a 2-year, $28 million deal by FanGraphs. Hamels is worth the gamble.

 

Hamels’ 2020 Steamer projection

25 starts, 141 IP, 3.62 ERA, 131 K, 2.9 WAR

 

My projected ’20 Braves’ rotation (as it stands)

  1. Mike Soroka (RHP)
  2. Mike Foltynewicz (RHP)
  3. Cole Hamels (LHP)
  4. Max Fried (LHP)
  5. Sean Newcomb (LHP)

 

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