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February 21, 2011

Fantasy Beat

Hammel Time

by Jason Collette

Jason Hammel was originally selected out of a Washington high school by the Tampa Bay Devil Rays in the 10th round of the 2002 draft. Hammel’s first season in professional baseball was not a pretty one, but he managed to succeed: He allowed 85 baserunners in 52 innings but did not permit a home run. In fact, Hammel gave up just two homers in his first 128 1/3 innings as a pro.

He caught his stride the next few seasons in the Devil Rays’ farm system and was rewarded for his work with the fifth spot in the club's starting rotation in 2006. The Rays gave him two starts before demoting him to Triple-A and did not bring him back until late in August. He finished the season with no wins, six losses, a 7.77 ERA and, to top things off, a -0.7 WARP. Hammel's 2007 was not much better as he worked as a swingman with one of the worst defenses and bullpens in baseball behind him; he finished with 0.5 WARP and 6.14 ERA. He mostly worked in mop-up duty in 2008 as the rest of the rotation enjoyed very good years, leading the club to their first-ever winning season and lone World Series appearance.

Coming into the 2009 season, it was a make-or-break camp for Hammel, as he was out of minor-league options. The front office decided to keep Andy Sonnanstine on the 25-man roster over Hammel; they worked out a deal to ship Hammel to the Colorado Rockies for minor leaguer Aneury Rodriguez, and the career paths of Hammel and Sonnanstine moved in different directions. Since the trade, Sonnanstine has struggled with a -1.4 WARP while Hammel has shown growth in Colorado with a 3.3 WARP.  

Despite the improvement, Hammel has barely been rosterable in mixed leagues and has only shown small value in NL-only leagues, but I believe that is about to change. He is a fascinating pitcher to analyze because his splits only tell half the story. If you stay on the surface level of his splits, he is an unattractive pitcher, but a deeper dive paints much better results.

Home/Road Splits:

For his career, there has been very little different in Hammel's skills at his home parks versus on the road. At home he has a career 5.15 ERA, and the instant write-off on that is that he has pitched the last two years in Coors Field. Since 2008 was mostly a year spent in mop-up relief, I do not give it as much weight as the last two years, but here are Hammel’s ERA and SIERA splits over the past three seasons:

  • 2008: 4.60/5.06
  • 2009: 4.33/3.86 
  • 2010: 4.81/3.83

Since leaving Tropicana Field, his SIERA has been better than his actual ERA in both seasons with the Rockies, and it was significantly better in 2009. That is good news, but it gets even better when you break down his splits to location.

Year

Actual Home

SIERA Home

Actual Road

SIERA Road

2009

5.73

3.92

3.13

4.22

2010

4.07

3.83

5.71

4.16

At home—the environment most are worried about with Hammel—his SIERA has improved each of the past three seasons; the same is true for his road work. His performances are trending in the right direction even though his baseball card stats have not done so. It is surprising that a pitcher who pitches in the spacious Coors Field has a better home SIERA for the past two seasons than he does road SIERA (SIERA is not park-adjusted).

Bases Empty/Bases Occupied/RISP:

Stranding runners has not been one of Hammel’s stronger skills in his 561 innings as a major-league pitcher. He has pitched in parts or all of five seasons, and his career LOB% is just 68 percent. He has eclipsed the 70 percent plateau just one time in his career, and that was as a reliever in 2008. His career rates paint an unpleasant picture of his splits with the bases empty compared to runners on base and runners in scoring position:

  • Bases empty: .273/.324/.433 in 1,386 plate appearances
  • Men on: .316/.378/.477 in 1,093 plate appearances
  • RISP: .310/.393/.474 in 685 plate appearances

That is an unpleasant slash line for his efforts with runners in scoring position. I asked Mike Fast, our resident PITCHf/x guru, to check into Hammel’s location pitching in these situations, and he said there was not anything terribly discernable from his database that warranted further investigation. Utilizing Joe Lekowitz’s site, we are able to look at Hammel’s pitch velocity and tendencies within these same splits and come up with the same dead end that Fast did in looking at release points and pitch location:

Yet again, diving further into his splits paints a better picture.

Year

OPS Empty

OPS Occupied

OPS RISP

2009

769

781

795

2010

717

809

768

In 2010, Hammel did a better job in keeping runners off base than he did in 2009, and once they got into scoring position he was a bit more effective in stranding them. If you look into his RISP splits over his career, his OPS has gone down in five consecutive seasons, from 1,304 to 920 to 880 to 795 to the 768 he posted last season.

If you look at Hammel’s 2010 season and take the first and last month of the season away, you have a fantasy asset that had a 3.62 ERA, 1.24 WHIP, 110 strikeouts, 33 walks, and nine wins in 20 starts that covered 129 innings. As good as that was, the 8.01 ERA he put up across April and September with the 1.82 WHIP either hurt a lot of fantasy owners out of the gate or killed some pennant runs in September.

One of the factors that has caused some of the issues is a genetic one. MLB.com’s Thomas Harding had a good story out last month in which Hammel revealed he takes Crestor to help battle his cholesterol, as his family has an unfortunate history of heart disease that took his father at an early age. Hammel admitted to some of the side effects of the medication affecting him last year. and it would help explain his slow start and unfortunate finish to the season. He also explained how he has altered his diet and regimen to prepare for the 2011 season, and has gone to an herbal approach this season—it’s supposed to lack the side effects that were a factor last year.

Simply put, when I look at Hammel, I see a guy whose standard scoring category efforts to date are going to scare a lot of people away on draft day. Yet, his in-season SIERAs are trending in the right direction and his past inability to strand runners on base is improving as he is permitting fewer runners on base. He has become more effective pitching when runners are in scoring position, which was his biggest problem in past seasons. His strikeout rate is trending upward, and his walk and HR/9 rate continue to improve. The statistics point in the same direction as my gut instinct—Hammel is on the verge of a breakout 2011 season for fantasy players, and a $1 investment in a mixed league will be money well spent, while a $5 purchase at an NL draft table could bring back a 200 percent return on investment. 

Jason Collette is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Jason's other articles. You can contact Jason by clicking here

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