Monday, April 30, 2012

Jason Hammel is an ace?

Jason Hammel has made four starts for the Baltimore Orioles. His numbers are eye-popping. A win-loss record of 3-0 can be discounted as a misleading statistic, but not with ERA - FIP - xFIP numbers of 1.76 -2.45 - 2.78. Those are some pretty numbers. But they aren't the only ones. After a career of strikeouts and walks per nine being 6.33 and 3.10 respectively, this season, those same stats are at 8.65 and 2.77. And how about his tidy little 1.00 WHIP after a career with that statistic being at 1.45? And one last number to round out the picture: He has a home run per nine this season of 0.35 after a career of 1.03 in that category. So what is going on here?

You have to remember that all of us...yes ALL of us...laughed at the Orioles for basically trading Jeremy Guthrie straight up for Jason Hammel. What were they thinking? And there was a basis for the laughter. Hammel had a career ERA of 4.88. And that could not even be explained for pitching half his games at Coors Field in Colorado. Sure, he had career ERA of 4.97 there. But his road ERA of 4.79 on the road was not much better. And he actually had a better winning percentage at home in Coors than he did on the road. So, yeah, there was reason for skepticism. But Hammel has made a monkey out of us all and has made the Orioles look brilliant. So again, what is the difference between this Jason Hammel and the old one?

Ground balls and strikeouts. Those are the differences. The strikeouts have already been discussed. Hammel's swinging strike percentage is up by three percentage points and his contact rate is down from a career 82.7 percent down to 75.7 percent. That would certainly account for the strikeouts. But even more glaring is the ground balls.

For his career, Jason Hammel has averaged 45.5 percent of his batted balls being grounders and 34 percent being fly balls. This season, those percentages are 61.8 percent and 23.5 percent respectively. For his career, Hammel has a 1.34 ground ball to fly ball ratio. This season, it is 2.63. That is an amazing turnabout. And, sure, four starts scream small sample size at us, but still. These are trends that bode well for a starter that has seemingly reinvented himself.

Pitch/FX data shows that Hammel has converted himself from a four-seam fastball kind of guy to a two-seam fastball kind of guy. He really started developing the latter last season when he threw the pitch 13.1 percent of the time. But he still threw the four-seam fastball 47.5 percent of the time. This year, the data shows that he is throwing the four-seam fastball only 20.9 percent and is throwing the two-seam variety (known also as a sinker), 40.5 percent of the time. He is also throwing his slider more and less curves and change ups. What we see here is a different pitcher from the past and so far, it shows.

Jason Hammel will have a big test against the Yankees tonight. His starts thus far have come against the Blue Jays (twice), the Twins and the White Sox. All of those teams have had offensive struggles. His start against the Yankees will tell us a bit more what we have here. But to this point, Jason Hammel has looked like an ace for the Baltimore Orioles and that comes as a major surprise.

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