Let's talk about Jason Hammel

Hammel will seek to pitch his way out of Jeff Samardzija's shadow. - Greg Fiume

So everybody's talking about Jeff Samardzija. What about his rotation-mate we also acquired, Jason Hammel?

Most of us have heard a lot about Jeff Samardzija in recent days. (And for good reason! He's great. I even wrote a fanboy post introducing him to Oakland fans.)

But ... but ... but ...

There's this other guy who was acquired in the same deal. His name is Jason Hammel, and he's making his debut tonight (Wed. July 9) at AT&T Park.

Last weekend, Bleed Cubbie Blue's Al Yellon wrote a full-blown in memoriam of Jeff Samardzija for us, tracing his history with the Cubs organization and his local connection to their fans.

Of Jason Hammel he wrote:

"You likely know almost as much about him as I do."

He went on to give us a brief summary of what he's done for the Cubs during his three-month tenure.

"He seems past whatever injuries have ruined previous seasons and he is having by far the best year of his career. One of the things he's done best this year is not walk people -- just 23 walks in 108⅔ innings, for a total WHIP of 1.021, which is eighth-best in the major leagues (and would rank fourth in the American League behind Chris Sale, Felix Hernandez and Masahiro Tanaka, pretty good company)."

Hammel is destined to be the overlooked piece in this deal, and someone needed to do some digging, and that someone was me. Here's what I found.

***

If you had to slap a hashtag on Jason Hammel's career it would have to be #evolution, or maybe #reinvention. I'm not writing a self-help column here, so suffice it to say that Hammel's career resembles a Bedouin mercenary roaming distant lands in search of work -- he's played for five teams in eight years now. The results have been mixed, but his successes outweigh his failures, especially in recent years. He's a much better pitcher than his career 4.62 ERA suggests.

In high school, he was the definition of a late-bloomer. He played JV baseball well into his junior year of HS, and when he showed up to Treasure Valley Community College in Ontario, OR as a freshman -- he grew up in Washington state -- he was a self-admitted "beanpole," who couldn't bench 135 lbs and collected legos (which he still does).

Despite having an ERA over 5.00, he was drafted out TVCC in the 10th round by the Devil Rays (his third time being drafted). In his first year, he struggled at Rookie-ball and Low-A, posting a cumulative 1-5 record with 4.74 ERA, 1.61 WHIP and a 43/14 strikeout-walk ratio. He wasn't handing out free passes, but his below-average strikeout-rate and 12.3 hits allowed per nine didn't scream "prospect!"

2004 was Hammel's minor league breakout. He posted a 2.66 ERA and 1.16 WHIP over 166 innings between Single-A and High-A. He continued limiting walks, but his strikeout rate increased from 6.26 per nine to 8.3. He extended his success into the 2005 season, logging 136 innings of 3.24 ERA, 1.27 WHIP ball with nearly identical strikeout and walk rates as the year before -- except at Double-A and Triple-A. This campaign was promising enough to land him on Baseball America's Top-100 prospect list (No. 79 heading into 2006) for the first time.

In 2006, Hammel reached the majors with the Devil Rays, but the sheen he carried as a prospect quickly wore thin. In his three years shuttling between Tampa and Durham -- home of the Triple-A Durham Bulls -- he was ... underwhelming.

His final line with the Rays:

W-L

GS

IP

ERA

FIP

H/9

HR/9

SO/9

BB/9

7-15

28

207 1/3

5.90

5.17

10.6

1.3

6.1

4.2

The calendar year turned to 2009, and Andrew Friedman and the newly-named Rays decided to trade their "broken" prospect for the Rockies' Aneury Rodriguez -- who now plays in Korea. Hammel eventually earned a spot in the Rockies' starting rotation -- they started him in the bullpen -- and in spite of recording ERA's over 4.00 in 2009 and 2010, he was worth 3.7 and 3.8 fWAR. He learned to limit the long-ball and nearly cut his walk-rate in half, not dissimilar from the step-forward he'd made in the minors. After the two solid performances, the Rockies decided to buy-out his first two arbitration years for $7.75 million.

In 2011, he morphed back into the guy the Rays shipped out for a single scrap. He lost the gains he'd made in terms of strikeouts and walks, and the gopher-balls resurfaced too. He was demoted to the bullpen again and traded to the Orioles as part of a package for Jeremy Guthrie. His "stuff" appeared the same, but the command he'd displayed in years past escaped him.

Fast forward to 2012 and Jason Hammel transformed himself into a pitcher no one had seen before. Specifically, he began leaning on his sinker more often than his four-seam fastball -- he went from using it 1.96 percent of the time in 2011 to 31.32 percent in 2012. (Also of note, sinkers don't sink in Colorado.) The other change he made was increasing his use of his best off-speed pitch, the slider. He increased its usage from 17.47 percent to 22.43.

These changes, coupled with an uptick in velocity, were the recipe for his major league breakout -- he was worth 2.6 fWAR in just 118 innings in 2012. He almost made the all-star team (lost the Final Vote), posted his first sub-4.00 ERA (3.43), threw his only career shutout (he one-hit the Braves), and started Games 1 and 5 of the ALDS. As mentioned above, his fantastic year was cut short. A knee injury that required surgery kept him sidelined for most of the second half.

He was named Baltimore's Opening Day starter heading into 2013. He disappointed in a major way, however, posting a well-deserved 4.97 ERA and 1.46 WHIP, giving back the gains he'd seemingly made the year before. He once again missed significant time due to injury (a strained elbow this time) and failed to reestablish any sort of value he had heading into free agency this past off-season. He settled with a one-year $6 million dollar contract with the Cubs.

Enter Chris Bosio (Cubs pitching coach). Hammel began work with Bosio this spring on, yet again, a new approach. Reclamation projects are the newest business in North Chicago. Hammel's re-re-surgence is linked to the re-proliferation of his slider. Remember earlier when I said he'd increased the slider usage five percent heading into 2012? Well, in 2014, he's throwing sliders nearly one-third of the time -- a career high by more than 10 percentage points -- and getting significantly more whiffs than he ever has. Why? It's not certain, but one potential reason is that it's become more of a slurve than a true slider. The pitch has significantly more vertical movement than ever before. He's also walking fewer than two batters per nine innings, which is amazing in itself, but even more amazing when you consider how often he's throwing breaking balls.

So, here we are in Oakland, after Hammel's long and (nauseatingly) winding road. The A's have obviously bought into Hammel Version 3.0 ... wait, 4.0. Do you?

I'll leave you with this video of Justin, I mean Jason ...


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