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Athletics 2014 season review: Jason Hammel was better than you remember

Hammel turned that frown upside down after a rough July.
Hammel turned that frown upside down after a rough July.
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

We now enter the Villains portion of the season review series, as the next three players were out of favor with varying percentages of Athletics Nation throughout the year. First up is No. 40, Jason Hammel, who probably doesn't deserve as much flak as he's gotten.

Player profile

Name: Jason Hammel, aka Gascan (July edition)
Position: RHP, starting and relief
Stats: 13 games (12 starts), 4.26 ERA (88 ERA+), 5.10 FIP, 67⅔ innings, 13 HR
WAR: 0.0 bWAR, negative-0.3 fWAR
How he got here: Acquired from Chicago Cubs on July 4
2014 Salary: $6 million (full season)
2015 Status: Free agent, signed with Chicago Cubs (2yr/$20M)
2015 Salary: $9 million

Season summary

Hammel came to the Oakland Athletics in the July 4 blockbuster trade that sent top prospect Addison Russell to the Chicago Cubs for starter Jeff Samardzija. Hammel was the secondary piece in that deal, but he was more than a throw-in -- he had a 2.98 ERA (128 ERA+) in 17 starts for Chicago and a 4.52 strikeout-to-walk rate to back it up, and between that success* and a strong 2012 campaign it was looking like he may have begun to establish himself as a solid starter. The target in the trade was Shark, but Hammel was added in when the price got too high; the A's got some depth in addition to their big prize.

* 3.1 bWAR, 2.0 fWAR for Cubs in '14; 3.0 bWAR, 2.6 fWAR for Orioles in '12

We've already dissected that trade to death, so there's no need to do it again here. When I reviewed Samardzija, my personal conclusion was that the trade was necessary for the A's to make the playoffs because of the added value that Shark provided over the available replacements, and that the addition of Hammel was probably a wash and didn't help or harm the team's record. Let's leave aside Shark and the trade in this post and just look at Hammel.

It's easy to understand why Hammel fell out of favor so quickly with A's fans. There were great expectations that came with his high-profile arrival, and he completely pooped the bed in his first four games in green and gold. In his debut, he lost to the rival Giants and cost the A's a chance at a season sweep, and he went on to get shelled by the Orioles and Astros en route to an 0-4 record and a 9.53 ERA. The A's had paid big to get a couple of veteran starters, and one of them appeared to be defective.

The progression of public opinion is fast for a midseason acquisition. If you're bad in your first game, people get a bit antsy but everyone gives you a pass -- welcome to town, new guy, we'll get 'em next time! If you're bad again, everyone gets a bit more worried. Three stinkers, and the questions and second-guessing of the trade get too loud to ignore. After four straight poor outings, the hole is dug deep enough that getting out requires a particularly memorable bounce-back.

Hammel did recover from his inauspicious opening act, and he was quite good over the final two months. However, he was just middle-of-the-rotation good, throwing six solid innings at a time -- that's all we ever expected of him, but something flashier would have been required to forget the stench of his July slump. Making matters worse, the A's rarely scored runs for him, so even when he pitched well the team would lose the game and it would look like he'd failed yet again. But still, the turnaround was striking:

Hammel, July 2014: 4 games, 17 innings, 9.53 ERA, 12 Ks, 10 BB, 5 HR
Hammel, Aug/Sep: 9 games*, 50⅔ innings, 2.49 ERA, 42 Ks, 11 BB, 8 HR

* 8 starts, 1 relief outing (3 scoreless innings)

When you put it like that, I see two samples. One is really good and one is really bad, and the good one is 2-3 times bigger and came later chronologically. It continues to amaze me that the smaller one is the defining one, as Hammel is generally viewed as a failed acquisition who performed poorly for the A's. In reality, he was good more often than he was bad, and his overall numbers were skewed by how over-the-top atrocious he was when he was off his game. That last part is important -- no matter how badly you pitch in a game you can only lose it once, so if you suffer a couple of particularly hideous blowouts in a small enough sample your overall performance can appear sub-par even if a majority of your games were good.

To further illustrate this point, let's take a look at Hammel's game logs. First, his awful July, with the A's run total in parentheses:

5ip/2er - A's lost (2 runs) (vs. Giants)
2ip/5er - A's lost (4 runs) (vs. Orioles)
5.2ip/3er - A's lost (1 run) (vs. Rangers)
4.1ip/8er - A's lost (1 run) (vs. Astros)

That's a really bad string of starts! But actually, two of them were more mediocre than bad. And anyway, the A's scored a total of eight runs in those four games -- these were probably going to be losses no matter who pitched. Even with Tommy Milone or Dan Straily throwing 6ip/3er, they still would have lost three of these four games, because the lineup got shut down by Matt Cain (in an off year), Jerome Williams (perpetually in an off year), and Dallas Keuchel (four-hit complete game). Keeping the Orioles under five runs is also not an easy task and there's no guarantee that any of Oakland's depth options could have done that either.

And in August and September?

5.2ip/0er - A's won! (3 runs)
6.1ip/1er - A's lost (1 run)
3ip/5er - A's lost (2 runs)
7ip/1er - A's lost (2 runs)
8ip/1er - A's won! (6 runs)
6.2ip/2er - A's lost (3 runs)
5ip/3er - A's lost (2 runs)
6ip/1er - A's lost (1 run)

That's eight starts. Six of them were good, one of them was mediocre, and one of them was bad. The A's went 2-6 in those games. Four times, Hammel threw a quality start and the team failed to convert it into a win. Only three times in that span did he allow more than one earned run in a game. And yet, no one remembers the resurgence because it didn't lead to any wins, through no fault of Hammel's. Even if he'd thrown 6ip/2er in every single game he pitched for Oakland, the A's still would have gone only 4-8 in his starts.

Could Milone or Straily or Pomeranz or Chavez have won more than two out of the 12 games Hammel started if they'd pitched in his place? It seems so easy to say yes when you put it like that, but the reality is that they probably wouldn't have, unless you believe they were going to throw a lot of shutouts (note: they were not). I also don't think they would have done any worse. I think they would have done about the same, mostly watching hopelessly as their teammates failed to give them run support but stealing a couple of wins when the stars aligned just right. The A's were just so bad in these contests that it didn't really matter who was starting on the mound.

All told, Hammel had six good starts, three mediocre ones, and three bad ones. That sounds about like a No. 4/5 starter. Under normal circumstances, with the offense scoring consistently and the bullpen generally doing its job, you'd figure that would result in something like a 6-3 record with three no-decisions, and something like an 8-4 or 7-5 team record. If that's the rate at which my No. 5 starter is putting me in position to win games, then I don't care if his extra-bad blowouts skew his ERA over 4.00 and his ERA+ under 90.

So, Hammel was a victim of timing and circumstance. He saved his worst performance of the year for his first impression in front of his new fans, and when he finally started pitching well the sunshine of his success was blocked out by the storm clouds of suck gathering around the rest of the team. And then, to make matters worse, Hammel gave up the winning run in the the Wild Card game against the Royals. There was context, of course -- he entered in emergency relief duty in the 12th inning, faced one batter, watched his inherited runner steal second as All-Star catcher Derek Norris dropped a routine pitchout, and then induced an almost-routine ground ball that squeezed past the Fielding Bible award-winning third baseman to score the go-ahead run. But in the box score, he was the guy on the mound when the other team walked off in the postseason elimination game. A fitting end to an unfair summer for the right-hander.

2014 season grade, relative to expectations: C- ... He was supposed to eat some innings in the back of the rotation, and he mostly did that. He was good more often than he was bad, but he was rarely great. He gets the minus on his C just for being so darn unpopular with the greater fanbase.

2014 season grade, overall: B- ... His season line included a 109 ERA+ in 29 starts, so he had a good year overall between both of his teams. His overall grade just with Oakland would have been a C-, with a sub-par ERA and an even worse FIP.

Video highlights

Let's start with Hammel's two wins in green and gold. After dropping his first four starts, he somehow managed to scatter seven hits and four walks over just 5⅔ innings and escaped without allowing a run. It was not a pretty start, and it might be a stretch to call it a good one, but it turned out well. Sometimes you're just due for some good fortune.

On Labor Day, the A's jumped out to an early lead when Adam Dunn homered in his first at-bat with the team. Hammel had the rare opportunity to pitch with run support, and he cruised to a victory over the Mariners.

Here's a game Hammel didn't win. He tossed seven frames against the Astros and allowed just one run on three hits with six strikeouts. That's a gem. That's Jon Lester quality. Then Luke Gregerson gave up a three-run homer to Chris Carter in the eighth and it became just another start that Hammel didn't win. You probably don't remember this game at all.


The A's loss was the Cubs' gain. After getting maximum prospect value out of Hammel through trade in July, they went and re-signed him as a free agent a few months later. Not only that, they got him at a relatively bargain price, likely due in part to the perception that he was bad in Oakland. His two-year deal pays him $9 million annually, and I think he would have been worth a third year and more money (3yr/$30M?). He's 32 years old, so getting him on such a short deal removes the risk that comes with his age, and he's been league-average overall the last three years while increasing his inning total each year and showing the upside for long stretches of consistently above-average play. Well played, Cubbies.