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November 9, 2009

Ahead in the Count

Cole Being Cole?

by Matt Swartz

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Two weeks ago, I wrote an article on Cole Hamels on the day that the Phillies clinched the National League pennant, explaining in detail that I do not believe that there is anything wrong with Cole Hamels, and that the difference between 2008 and 2009 is abnormally good luck in the first and abnormally bad luck in the second. The first clue was that he had similar peripheral statistics in 2008 and 2009. He struck out 21 percent of hitters in both years, and walked just over five percent of hitters in 2009 after walking just under six percent of them in 2008. His ground-ball rate stayed roughly the same, rising from 41 to 43 percent. The difference came from his BABIP jumping from an incredibly fortunate .262 to an incredibly unfortunate .321. It has been shown many times before that BABIP is a statistic with low persistence, and that pitchers see their performances jump up and down constantly with respect to this statistic. As a result, much of year-to-year fluctuation in ERA is tied to fluctuations in BABIP. Unsurprisingly, Hamels ERA went from 3.09 in 2008 to 4.32 in 2009. As Hamels' peripherals indicate an ERA around 3.65, it seems likely that he had a mixture of good luck in 2008 and bad luck in 2009 that belied his ERA.

This is not at all atypical. Given the number of balls in play that Hamels allowed, the standard deviation of his BABIP should be .020 in any given year, meaning that he was barely in the top ten percent of pitchers with respect to good luck in 2008, and barely in the top ten percent of pitchers with respect to bad luck in 2009. This type of fluctuation is typical. Looking at other pitchers through history, you can see that their ERA often bounces up and down, and in so far as pitchers can't control BABIP, it's BABIP that is frequently the culprit.

In my article from October 21, I took this into more detail. I discovered that Hamels allowed no more hitters to hit the ball to the outfield-52 percent in 2008 and 51 percent in 2009. Although Hamels himself later claimed that the problem was a failure to put away hitters with two strikes, citing his hit rate on two-strike counts, Hamels may not know that he struck as many of them out in this situation: 41 percent in 2008, and 40 percent in 2009. Not only that, he induced slightly more popups in 2009 than in 2008. Hitters also pulled, hit balls to center, and hit balls the opposite way with the same frequency as well.

Predictably, this article was received quite well with the Baseball Prospectus crowd, and rather skeptically by many other baseball fans. The value of on-base percentage has slowly gained ground with more casual fans, but analyzing pitchers with an ERA that is belied by their peripheral statistics in the face of very good or bad BABIP is not something that casual fans take to all that willingly. Many writers tried to explain alternative theories, often citing Hamels' psychology as fatally flawed in some way. They claimed he was not paying attention to the game as much, that he was too obsessed with his celebrity, and when confronted with this logic, I would simply ask why that type of difficulty would not affect his strikeout or walk rates. I still have not heard a good answer, and recently tweeted, "Enough of people who don't know baseball, Hamels, or psychology explaining the effect of Hamels' mindset on his performance!"

Meanwhile, my article was cited in the blog of Philadelphia Inquirer beat writer Andy Martino, who understood my point but took issue with my conclusions. He also took strong issue with Rob Neyer's claim that fellow Inquirer writer Jim Salisbury was ignorant of statistics in claiming that Hamels should pick up another pitch. Specifically, Neyer said baseball writers had a "sick, 20th century obsession with wins and losses and ERA." Martino quipped, "Isn't it so, like, 2004 to say that newspaper writers don't care about statistical analysis?" This is a fair point when it comes to Martino, who I would like to stress is very adept at statistical analysis. However, Martino needs to be more honest about his fellow Inquirer staff writers. The newspaper frequently tried to attribute Ryan Howard's World Series performance to psychological problems as well, without even mentioning the left-handedness of his opponents. This is the same paper in which Frank Fitzpatrick wrote that Hamels does not have "enough Philly in him." In this article, Fitzpatrick lauded players such as Pete Rote, currently banished from baseball in gambling, and Lenny Dykstra, who ran into problems gambling in his own way, who Fitzpatrick claimed were Philly enough. Instead, "Hamels, it's always apparent, makes his living with his arm, not his hands," Fitzpatrick claimed.

This last article may have drawn particularly criticism and even some excellent parody, but it is not atypical for the Inquirer. Frequently, statistical analysis is eschewed in favor of sensationalism and character attacks. Much of the common stereotypes of Philadelphia fans are a result of the relentless Philadelphia media, which frequently resorts into character assaults on good players who are not at their best.

The problem, of course, is that it's easy to attribute a psychological profile to a 25-year-old based on outcome. The difference between a "deer in headlights" look and an "unfazed by his surroundings" look can only be distinguished if there is a scoreboard in the background. Images of Hamels fighting through the downpour of rain during Game Five of the 2008 World Series were frequently shown as testaments to the strength of his character, his ability to ignore the chaos surrounding him and pitch the team to victory. Images of Hamels during Game Three of the 2009 World Series were frequently shown as testaments to his character flaws and used to explain his difficulty in performing as he felt that he should. However, if he had given up a few bloopers in the rain in 2008, the captions would have cited Hamels' inabilities to toughen through a little water, and those same few bloopers had been caught in the 2009 Series, Hamels would have been lauded for getting a fresh start. The character assassination of playoff goats and canonizing of playoff heroes should be buried as memes, but the Inquirer's guilty of frequently summoning them up.

Martino, however, has never resorted to these extremes in my time reading him, and it is why I will take his criticism of my articles seriously. He does know his statistics, and Martino made several claims about Hamels' season that are strong points, but I do not believe that they take away from my hypothesis. I will address these step by step.

Comment: He had a sore elbow in March, April, and May. I know that because he told me later in the summer.

Pitchers frequently deal with injuries. This is not the first time in Hamels' career that he had elbow problems, but he never put up a 4.32 ERA before. To claim that this affected his entire season seems unlikely, especially as his ERA from June through the end of the regular season was 4.03 and his BABIP was .312, so much of his BABIP problems clearly came after this alleged elbow problem was healed.

Comment: He did not begin training until later than usual, because he took on too many post-World Series commitments.

This certainly explains the elbow injury in March that did lead to a delay in his first start and lowered velocity in that start (throwing 86.9 mph fastballs on average, and averaging about 90 mph in subsequent starts, starting at 89.3 in his second start).

Comment: Even on days when his pitches were working, he responded poorly to adverse circumstances, and allowed bad innings to snowball. He admits this, and his manager, GM, and coach agree. It is also obvious from watching his body language.

Hamels clearly does not like giving up runs, but I do not believe bad innings snowballed in general. In 2008, he allowed a 627 OPS with bases empty and 714 OPS with men on. In 2009, he allowed a 756 OPS with bases empty and 754 OPS with men on. It appears that Hamels was actually relatively better at stepping up his performance with men on in 2009 rather than allowing them to snowball.

Comment: Though his velocity was as good as last year, he has to overthrow to get his fastball in the low 90s. That sometimes resulted in poor location and home runs allowed.

This suggestion was particularly intriguing to me, and it's the one that I went into the most detail to test. Here's what we do know: Hamels threw 53.1 percent of his pitches in the zone in 2008, and 52.5 percent of them in the strike zone in 2009. He threw 32.6 percent of pitches for balls in 2008, and 32.7 percent of them for balls in 2009. Clearly, Hamels was not missing the strike zone much more frequently at all. I also used the excellent PITCHf/x baseball website brooksbaseball.net, and copied data from each of Hamels' starts for 2008 and 2009. Brooksbaseball.net has a statistic that is called "Nibbleness," which they define as "the arithmetic mean of the distance of each pitch, in inches, from the edge of a normalized strike zone. Lower indicates 'more nibbly.'" This seems like the statistic to check. I weighted both fastballs and changeups by the number of pitches thrown and found that his 2008 average Nibbleness was 5.3; in 2009, it was 5.5. It is very hard to believe that a fifth of an inch explains a sixty-point swing in BABIP that caused many more singles, but that many more doubles and triples, and actually led to fewer home runs in 2009.

This is similar to the claim that Hamels' changeup was more hittable with respect to movement in 2009, rather than in location. FanGraphs' listed horizontal/vertical movements on his changeups in the last three years are as follows:

2007: 7.5/7.7
2008: 6.2/7.9
2009: 7.5/8.2

Although I am no PITCHf/x expert, it certainly does not seem to be a good claim either. Instead, what we have is the same two primary pitches with similar velocities, movements, and locations in consecutive years.

Comment: The lack of a quality third pitch allowed hitters to guess what was coming. Take A-Rod last night: Hamels started him off with a change-up for strike one, so the hitter figured he would see a fastball within the next few pitches. When one arrived on the next pitch, A-Rod was ready, and clocked it into the Jeffrey Maier camera.

Certainly, guessing pitches plays a large role in who wins in a batter/pitcher duel. However, Hamels would certainly have given up more line drives if he were easier to predict in 2009 than 2008. He did not. He would have missed fewer bats in 2009 than 2008 if this were true. He did not. He would have surrendered more home runs (into Jeffrey Maier cameras or otherwise) if hitters could guess right more often. He did not.

What does that leave? Cole Hamels simply had a fairly typical amount of bad luck. Does that mean Hamels should not learn a new pitch? Where is the harm in that? If it helps him to develop a pitch that can make him even less predictable if he throws some nontrivial percent of them, then of course any pitcher should develop a pitch like this. But does Hamels need to? Probably not. But given that Hamels is more likely to be a 3.65 ERA skill level pitcher than the 3.09 ERA pitcher that benefited from a .262 BABIP in 2008, there is certainly room for improvement. Hamels only gets hitters to whiff at his fastball six percent of the time, compared to over 20 percent of the time when he throws his changeup. Perhaps a cutter or slider could add to the deception to increase this whiff rate. However, to say that Hamels will repeat his average ERA in 2010 is to make a pretty extreme claim that is not supported by the evidence at all.

All in all, looking at the evidence surrounding this data, it seems even less likely that something went terribly wrong for Hamels in 2009. He certainly should not be satisfied with his performance, because no pitcher should. Pitchers are constantly working to try to keep hitters guessing, and Hamels had better continue to do so if he wants to avoid losing ground. However, if he does lose ground, it will come with a decline in strikeout rate, an increase in walk rate, and a decline in ground-ball rate.

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

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