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September 4, 2009
Thanks to a major league rotation that didn't even have room for super-prospect David Price and a minor league system overflowing with additional options, Jason Hammel found himself one of the odd men out in Tampa Bay this spring. He had talent, but was destined to pitch out of the bullpen if he remained with the club. The Rays did the logical thing and moved Hammel to Colorado, where the 26-year old would be given a chance to pitch on a consistent basis. He's been a key piece of the Rockies' rotation this year, and with the question marks surrounding the pitching staff as they shoot for a playoff spot, his role becomes that much more important. Today we will take a closer look at Hammel, to see just what kind of pitcher it is the Rockies have at their disposal as they fight for a spot to play some more Rocktober baseball.
Hammel didn't get going as a prospect until 2004, as he missed a big chunk of 2003 due to a wrist injury suffered during pre-game warm-ups. His numbers prior to the injury weren't anything spectacular either, as he whiffed just 5.9 per nine while walking just over three per. Things went much better for him the second time around though, as Hammel struck out 8.4 per nine with a 3.3 K/BB ratio during his repeat appearance in the Sally League, and then after a promotion to High-A Bakersfield he kept up the trend with another 71
At that point, Baseball America liked Hammel due to his long and lean frame, attributes that gave him "easy heat." Falling on his wrist resulted in a Henry Rowengartner-like experience, as his fastball became a plus offering that jumped three miles per hour in speed, putting him around 92-94. He showed solid command, as evidenced by his K/BB numbers, but he needed more consistency in his secondary offerings; his curveball was a great pitch when it worked well, and he was also working on a changeup. The Rays and Baseball Prospectus 2005 both thought of Hammel as a solid yet unspectacular prospect, with BP saying, "he's a fine starting prospect, but not a star."
Hammel would pitch at both Double- and Triple-A in 2005, with somewhat mixed results. Double-A posed no problem for the right-hander, as he maintained his strikeout rate and dropped his free passes enough to strike out four times as many hitters as he walked, but Triple-A saw him lose a little bit on the command side. Still, a 4.12 ERA, 7.9 K/9, and 4.4 BB/9 aren't excessively bad for a 22-year old during his first taste at that level. Baseball America was impressed enough that they moved him from fifth to third in their Rays prospect rankings for 2006, observing that he'd made strides with both his hard curve and his changeup, but also tended to leave a straight fastball up in the zone a bit too often. Baseball Prospectus 2006 put things into perspective well:
A 2002 10th-round pick, Hammel has the build of a telephone pole, with all of a telephone pole's usual problems in repeating its delivery. That being said, until he reached Triple-A, Hammel had been able to keep his control in a good place. His first trip to Durham saw his walk rate more than double. Ascribe that to nerves and the need for further refinement of off-speed stuff to complement his low- to mid-90s fastball. Given his youth, the Rays have time to let Hammel get it right. If he shows any consistency he'll be up this year.
Hammel showed the consistency in the minors-despite the 4.23 ERA, he struck out 8.3 per nine and improved his walk rate from the previous year while keeping the ball in the park-but things didn't go so well in the majors. Thanks to his telephone-pole shape though, all of those calls to the bullpen had crystal clear reception. It wasn't all Hammel's fault; he walked plenty of hitters and let the opposition go yard a bit too often, but he got hosed on his BABIP and it killed his strand rate as well, making his debut go from "below-average" to "awful" faster than you can say "Waechter."
His ERA wasn't the only thing that took a beating, as Baseball America dropped him to 12th in their prospect rankings-where you don't get a headshot any more, you know-saying that his curveball was still inconsistent but that his changeup was still coming along as a solid third offering. The Rays felt that his struggles were due to his relying too heavily on his fastball-a lack of confidence with the secondary stuff, perhaps? We can confirm that thanks to Pitch Type Value-in his 44 innings of use, his fastball was 6.3 runs below average, and he threw it over 65 percent of the time. His changeup was also awful at the big-league level, with his curveball the lone pitch that got him anywhere.
Hammel split the 2007 season between the minors and major leagues, and while he was as effective as ever during his third stint at Triple-A, he didn't make much progress against higher-quality opponents. The strikeouts were there, but there were just too many homers and walks to go along with them, and it kept his ERA over 6.00 through 85 innings. Sure, he was unlucky, but again, his adjusted ERA's weren't the most attractive thing around either. His tRA* for 2007 was 5.32 (tRA and tRA* use the RA scale, rather than the ERA scale, so think of it as somewhere around 5.00 for ERA) which is right around where he was with Tampa Bay in 2006. Jumping up and down between levels probably didn't help-he clearly had things down with minor league batters-and of course, we all know about how terrible the then Devil Rays' defense was. Baseball Prospectus 2008 noted his approach issues:
For the second straight season, Hammel pitched very well at Triple-A, then got shelled in the big leagues. Can the dreaded Quadruple-A label be far off? Though his stuff is above average, Hammel is primarily a strike-thrower, and once big-league hitters started smacking those strikes around a bit, he became too careful and began falling behind in counts, which forced him to throw fatter strikes, which got smacked around, and so forth. There's still some talent here, but he'll need to make some adjustments for it to pay off.
The Rays would keep Hammel in the majors for all of 2008, but he wasn't given a spot in the rotation. He made five starts and 35 bullpen appearances, but had his best year as far as traditional ERA goes (4.60). In reality, he was just a shade better than he had been before, with a tRA* of 4.92; given he spent a lot of time in the bullpen, you would expect the drop in ERA, so this isn't as impressive as it may seem at first glance. Let's not forget he somehow lost strikeouts per nine, while his walks remained an issue despite the switch to a relief role.
The Rays, realizing that Hammel had no place in their rotation and probably not in their bullpen, dealt him to the Rockies while he still had some of that new pitcher smell on him. Colorado, nowhere near as blessed in either the majors or minors with starting pitchers as Tampa Bay, immediately put Hammel to work in the rotation. The result is that he's had 24 starts on the year, and 137 innings pitched. He's also made that time productive, with 6.1 K/9, but more importantly, just 1.8 unintentional walks per nine and under a homer per nine, nearly halving both of his rates from previous major league campaigns.
What might be most impressive is that Hammel has accomplished this while spending his home games getting beaten down harder than an optimistic Royals fan. He's allowed a .402 BABIP and a line of .368/.393/.577 in Denver, but a .298 BABIP and .254/.311/.358 line on the road. There hasn't been much of a change in his approach, but he does use his curveball a bit more often than before, losing a few fastballs. Given the value of his fastball has not improved over the years, that's a good thing; in fact, his curveball is his best pitch this year from a value standpoint, at 9.0 runs above average, while both his fastball (-14.9) and changeup (-7.3) have suffered. That's intriguing, given what Colorado's air does to curves, but also makes sense given those BABIP figures-pitch value is based on results, and is more like ERA than an adjusted figure in that sense. It's not hard to see why his pitches would take a hit when he's allowing a .577 SLG at home.
What can we expect from Hammel going forward, both for the rest of this year and beyond? While his Colorado numbers are awful, they seem out of place as well. While he won't pitch as well at home as he does on the road, he should see some improvement-his tRA* has him at 4.66 (tRA* is defense- and park-neutral) which is right around his actual performance for the year. As long as he can keep the walks down and the ball in the yard-two traits he possessed during his time in Triple-A-there's no reason to believe he can't be a useful fourth or fifth starter at the major league level. When you consider that he's now in the National League-the nation's current leading producer of Quad-A jokes-then the success of that venture becomes even more assured, and you could bump him up to maybe mid-rotation material.
Though his PECOTA forecast for 2009 was for the Rays, it fits with this line of thinking. His weighted mean forecast had him down for a 4.65 ERA, and at his 75th percentile he was slated for 3.94. It may be tough to hit that higher level while in Colorado, but he's capable of it pitching against NL offenses outside of the Rockies. PECOTA also felt that Hammel was not much better than his weighted mean, following the 2009 campaign-the Rockies may be seeing Hammel at his best at age 26. As long as he can keep it up, though, his best should be good enough for a team that just had to trade for Jose Contreras as rotation insurance.