Cole Hamels looks ready for a Cy Young season.
National League Cy Young winner for 2012 Cole Hamels? Why not?
In 2011, his 2.79 earned run average ranked sixth in the NL, his walks plus hits per innings pitched ranked second at 0.99, and he finished fifth in NL Cy Young voting.
I looked like a genius for a while when I picked Hamels to win the Cy Young Award in 2011. But when he came up a little short, I received no praise and my brilliance went unnoticed. I bet he wins it this year, just to take my credit. Maybe I’ll have to pick Vance Worley this year…
Obviously Hamels is my pick again this year, but is he really a Cy Young candidate? He’s been a good pitcher, but does Hamels really rank up there with Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee or even Clayton Kershaw? He’s not there yet, but there are plenty of reasons to believe Hamels will have a monster 2012 season and can win the Cy Young Award. Before we look at his stats on paper, we would be remiss if we ignored his obvious maturity.
Mental lessons for Hamels
Hamels was born with a good fastball and one of the best change-ups in the game, but, in my mind, the biggest reason to believe Hamels is a Cy Young candidate is that he is finally ready mentally.
Hammels proved in the 2008 postseason that he is not afraid of a little pressure, but according to a line in The Mental ABC’s of Pitching, “if you want to know who I am, watch me when things aren’t going my way.”
Things were not going Hammel’s way in 2009. Hamels experienced failure for the first time in his entire life that season and had no clue how to handle it. His body language was terrible, he constantly complained to umpires, and, in some cases, he even showed up his teammates. Hamels was a textbook case of what not to do.
So, like any good pitcher, Hamels worked on his mental game. Even though his pitching was poor in April 2010 and he received visits from boo birds, Hamels hung in there. His body language was good, he did not complain to the umps, and never even once lashed out at the fans who booed him despite almost single-handedly ending their championship drought two years earlier. Hamels stated in a recent press conference that “it really made me discover who I was. That was the best stepping stone I could ever have in my career – to really dig down deep and work harder.”
The 2010 season also provided more examples. When the Philadelphia Phillies brought Lee back to town, Hamels was now considered the fourth best starter on his own team. That might have bothered the old Cole Hamels, but the new one barely noticed. He didn’t whine a bit when his team gave him no run support for the second straight season.
However, the best example of his growth came in Game 3 of the National League Divisional Series against the Cardinals. In that game, the home-plate umpire was squeezing him, the Cardinals were fouling off every pitch within a yard of the plate, and his pitch count rose exponentially. While I threw stuff at the TV, Hamels tuned out the frustration and maintained his cool in six of the toughest innings I can remember. As Hamels himself said, “I knew that every pitch mattered. Every inning mattered. We’re not in our home park anymore. You definitely focus and try to dig deep.”
New pitch, new pitcher
A 10-11 record and 4.32 ERA in 2009 forced Hamels to add another pitch – a cutter – to his arsenal.
After some early struggles in 2010 and a 4.08 ERA through June, he boasted a 2.28 ERA in the last three months of the season. Last season, Hamels set season career best marks in ERA, complete games, WHIP, hits per nine innings, home runs per nine innings, walks per nine innings, and strikeouts-to-walks ratio. Hamels had an ERA of 2.61 in the 18 months since “mastering” the cutter.
That mark alone is better than the ERAs of four of the last eight Cy Young winners.
Can Hamels keep it going?
The question that remains “Is Hamels ready to take the next step towards becoming an elite pitcher?”
The numbers say Hamels is plenty capable of doing just that.
First of all, Hamels was consistent in 2011. Comparing his averages each month, his WHIP ranged from 0.80 to 1.11, his walks per nine innings from 1.3 to 2.1, and his hits per nine innings from 5.9 to 7.6. He was not just lucky.
His overall improvement compared to his career averages is also encouraging. His home runs per nine innings improved from 1.09 to 0.79, his home runs-to-flyballs from 11.5 percent to 9.9 percent, his extra base hit percentage from 8.1 percent to 6.2 percent, and his line drive percentage from 18.7 percent to 15 percent. Those increases suggest that hitters made weaker contact. Less line drives meant less quality hits and subsequently fewer extra base hits. Fewer home runs per fly balls meant he was likely jamming hitters more frequently and keeping them off-balance more often.
His walks per nine innings also improved from 2.26 in his career to 1.83 in 2011, both well in line with Roy Halladay’s 1.35 and Cliff Lee’s 1.62.
Bottom line: Hamels has improved in nearly every facet of his game and that increase has been consistent.
Hamels admitted himself during his recent press conference that his sports hernia and loose bodies in his elbow were “both uncomfortable.”
Common sense tells you that Hamels should pitch even better with those problems resolved.
Finally, how much better might Hamels be if got a little run support?
A 2012 Cy Young Award for Hamels is a reality
When I picked Hamels to win the Cy Young last year, it was little more than blind faith and hope since he had never performed at quite that level previously. But there now exists 18 months of statistics to back up a Cy Young prediction.
I just hope he wins the award after the Phillies lock him up long term and not before the New York Yankees steal him in free agency.