It takes a lot for the analytical GM of the small market Oakland A’s, Billy Beane, to ship off a top 15 prospect. Trading Addison Russell meant big things had to be coming back to the O.Co, and they were. Chief among them was the big right handed starting pitcher who ranks top 20 in xFIP at 3.23 and 13th in K-BB% at 18.9%. He’s been worth 2.1 wins according to FIP-based fWAR, and projects for another 0.8 on the rest of the year. His arm has been built up enough to sustain a team through a serious playoff run, and he’s just what they need down in the sewers of Oakland. You know this guy, you can’t stop hearing about him. Sportscenter and MLB Tonight keep talking about his recent trade, and you probably want to jump off Mount Davis the next time you hear his name.
It’s a shame, because this pitcher is Jason Hammel and he deserves more recognition.
Jeff Samardzija was the obvious headliner in media stories when this trade broke, but he isn’t even the best player leaving Chicago. Jason Hammel has performed better than Shark in a myriad of categories, including SIERA, Strikeout%, Walk%, K-BB%, Swinging Strike Rate, RA9-WAR and Win Probability Added. There’s more to add, but I think you get the point. It’s not even that Hammel is getting unsustainably lucky. He’s due for some regression, but his rest of season (or ROS) projections are right around Samardzija’s.
The miracles going on for pitchers in North Chicago truly are amazing. Hammel, Jake Arrieta and Scott Feldman are all great examples of the Cubs gambling on some lottery ticket pitchers, then winning big later. Even Jeff Samardzija’s ascent was unprecedented, when the former wideout broke out with a stellar 2012 campaign at 27 years young. Pitching coach Chris Bosio is to credit for much of the success with these pitchers, as he’s been one of the few to crack the safe open to enjoy their bounties of talent.
Hammel isn’t a pitcher who has never had success though. He’s had a couple seasons where he came close to four fWAR, and was a key cog in the 2012 Orioles’ magical playoff run making three mid-October starts for them. But this year he’s found a new level of domination. He’s at career best marks in ERA and every ERA-predictor (FIP, xFIP, SIERA, etc.) and his K% and BB% are the best he’s had at any level of the minors or majors. Jason Hammel isn’t just pitching well, he’s reinvented himself. So what’s leading the charge for the 31 year old breakout star? The same thing teams are trying to get their pitchers to stop doing; more sliders.
Hammel’s work with Bosio has returned huge payouts (thanks for the prospects, Billy Beane!). Bosio is the kind of pitching coach who thrives under pressure, loving the challenge that team president Theo Epstein bestowed upon him when he took over in 2012. He’s a former advanced scout with the Brewers and uses an assortment of psychological tools and tricks to maximize his pitchers’ performances.
Bosio and Hamel clicked right off the bat, as Hammel bought into his style and Bosio responded with trust and praise. As told to Gordon Wittenmyer of the Chicago Sun-Times:
“Knock on wood, we have not had one issue with him health-wise all spring,” said Bosio, who put Hammel at the back of the rotation to give him extra time to build up. “He hasn’t backed off any [workouts], and he’s relentless in how he goes about his work. He’s in a really good spot right now.”
Working so closely together helped both understand each other better, which lead to the increase in sliders. Hammel has settled in around 19% slider usage for his career, topping out at 22.2% in 2012. This year he’s been relentless with it, spinning the pitch 32.6% of the time for the fourth highest usage in the league.
When asked about his newfound success, and how healthy he feels after missing time the past two years with knee issues, Hammel responded to Jesse Rogers of ESPN:
“A hundred percent,” Hammel said. “I knew two years ago, before I got hurt. I had made some adjustments and really figured out how to pitch and figured out who I was as a pitcher.
“[I’m] obviously healthy. And it translates.”
Hammel is confident in himself, and he should be. The adjustments have helped him increase the movement on his slider, going from a pure horizontal pitch with Baltimore to a more diagonal break in Chicago:
His slider has always been good, averaging 14.2% swinging strikes and 80 wRC+ for his career. The adjustments have just made it even better, as his 2014 whiff rate is up to 17.9% and opponents manage just 24 wRC+.
A’s fans are rejoicing over the addition of Samardzija, but Jason Hammel could very well end up the better piece of the deal. The A’s are in the best spot they’ve ever been in to make a serious playoff run, and quiet the moneyball naysayers (please shut up Hawk Harrelson). There’s hope in Oakland, and the Sonny Gray, Scott Kazmir, Hammel and Shark rotation will stack up favorably against anyone, even the Tigers as Justin Verlander helpfully pointed out. It’s going to be a fun ride this October, just like always.