Jason Hammel is currently the ace of the Baltimore Orioles pitching staff. In all likelihood, he is going to be chosen to start the ballgame on opening day versus the Rays. As of now, he is the best choice for the assignment. Remember last year when Jake Arrieta started on opening day? That seems like a long time ago now. Hopefully the Orioles opening day starter this year has a more successful season than last year’s opening day pitcher.
Hammel started his career with the Tampa Bay organization. He bounced back and forth between the rotation and the bullpen from 2006 to 2008 without really finding success in either role. On April 5, 2009, he was traded to the Colorado Rockies for pitching prospect Aneury Rodriguez. He spent the next 3 seasons soaking up innings in the Rockies rotation throwing between 170 – 180 innings each season. Pitching half of his games in Coors Field, which needless to say is one of the best hitters park in the league, he did not achieve great results there either. However, if you look a little deeper, his peripheral stats in 2009 and 2010 were actually pretty good. Even though his ERA’s were in the mid 4′s, his FIP was right around 3.70 both years. He also had a K/BB ratio of at least 3 in both seasons. In 2011, his K/9 rate dipped down below 5 and he had a terrible season. Looking back now, that season looks like the outlier.
To the Orioles benefit, they used his 2011 down year to acquire him in February, 2012 along with Matt Lindstrom for Jeremy Guthrie. One of Dan Duquette’s first major moves as GM looks like a very profitable trade for the Orioles. Lindstrom also pitched well before he was traded at the deadline. Hammel is due to be a free agent after the 2013 season but according to multiple sources, he has signed a 1 year deal to avoid going to arbitration. He had requested $8.25 million in arbitration, while the team had offered him $5.7 million. If you want an in depth review of his arbitration case, check out this piece at Baseball Prospectus. Arbitration cases are largely based on mainstream statistics as well as contracts for comparable players. I have a feeling he wouldn’t have won his case had it gone to arbitration but that doesn’t matter now. According to Dan Connolly of the Baltimore Sun, Hammel agreed to a 1 year, $6.75 million contract with $300,00 in available incentives.
In many respects, Hammel had the best season of his career last year. He was only able to throw 118 innings because of injury and went 8-6 with a 3.43 ERA. The ERA was not a fluke either. He had a 3.29 FIP and a 3.46 xFIP. His BABIP, strand rate and HR/FB percentage were all around league average. So how was he able to get these improved results? As many Orioles fans know, Hammel added a 2 seam fastball or sinker last season. Adding the 2 seamer led to the highest ground ball rate of his entire career, all the way up to 53%. That was the 9th highest ground ball rate in the American League for pitchers who threw at least 100 innings. He had never thrown a sinker in his career; previously he had stuck to throwing a fastball, curve, slider and change. He had always relied heavily on his fastball. Since it made such a difference in his results, lets look at the change to his repertoire in a couple of charts, courtesy of Brooks Baseball.
You can see that in 2011 Hammel relied on his 4 seam fastball more than 60% of the time. The results weren’t good as hitters knew that a fairly straight fastball was being thrown to them on 3 out of every 5 pitches. However, when Hammel added the 2 seamer in 2012, he threw it more than any other pitch. A full 31% of the time. You can also see from the chart above that he didn’t lose any velocity while throwing the 2 seam fastball as opposed to the 4 seam. They were both thrown at a career high velocity over 94 in 2012. Hammel’s average career velocity on his fastball is 93.4 so he gained just about a full mph on his fastball last season. Pitching at age 29 last season, he bucked the trend that most pitchers face where they lose velocity as they get older. Whether this continues will have a large impact on the way that he ages. Although, as he showed last year he has the ability to add new pitches and make adjustments when necessary.
A look at Hammel would be incomplete without at least mentioning the right knee problems he suffered last season. Hammel had arthroscopic surgery on his knee on July 16th to remove loose bodies. He was able to return for a couple of starts in September before experiencing more soreness in the knee, which forced him back to the sidelines. Hammel was able to return in order to start Games 1 and 5 of the AL Division Series against the Yankees, where he pitched reasonably well. I don’t think he was fully healthy until he had some time to rest in the offseason. Remember the big knee brace he wore during the playoffs? Even though he took some time off during the regular season, often times it takes a full offseason to recover for a player to get back to normal. Here is what Hammel said this January around FanFest, per Roch Kubatko:
“I feel 100 percent right now,” he said. “I’m very optimistic. I was a little scared after the season because things were still stiff. Finally, I was able to rest. I think that was the big key. You can’t really heal if you don’t have time to rest. It took about two weeks for the swelling and any fluid to subside, and then it was just a slow, gradual building back into a lifting process.
“As of right now, I’m doing normal workouts like I was doing before the injury, so I feel real good.”
I would take Hammel at his word and hope that he’s 100% heading into 2013. One other thing I’d like to point out: the opposing hitters that Hammel faced during the 2012 season had the 3rd highest OPS that any AL pitcher faced who threw at least 100 innings. If anyone was looking for another reason to say that Hammel’s 2012 was not a fluke, there you go. By the way, Jake Arrieta is 4th on that list.
So what do the Orioles have in Jason Hammel? They may not have an “ace” but they have a very good pitcher. One who has shown the ability to adapt and add pitches as he gets older. One who has not only maintained his velocity, but actually increased it last season. They have a pitcher who now has 3 postseason starts under his belt, who now has the coveted “postseason experience” on his resume. While Hammel will be the Orioles #1 pitcher in all likelihood next season, he fits into a rotation much better as a strong #2. Hammel is a guy that the Orioles should be looking to extend at some point during the 2013 season. I believe that he’ll show the team and the fan base that 2012 was not a fluke. With another half season of success, the Orioles can feel better about locking him up to a 2 or 3 year extension. The team shown the inclination to keep their own rather than bring in high priced talent from the outside. Look for that trend to continue in 2013.