A highly-regarded prep arm from San Diego, Hamels went to Philadelphia with the 17th-overall pitch in the 2002 draft, then promptly established himself as an elite prospect with an outstanding full-season debut between Low and High A in 2013. An elbow injury knocked him out for all but 16 innings in 2004, and the injury bug bit him hard again in 2005, when he lost large swaths of time to a broken finger and gnarly back injury. He came back to dominate promptly dominate Triple A in 2006, forcing a big-league debut before hitting the DL again in May with an ominously strained throwing shoulder. The injury passed relatively quickly, however, the city of Philadelphia exhaled, and he returned to the Phillies’ rotation in June to reel off 3.3 WARP in just north of 130 innings, and outside of a minor UCL strain in 2007 and a clean-up procedure on his elbow after the 2011 season, he has proven a remarkably durable, effective big-league starter ever since. All told he amassed nearly 50 WARP across parts of 10 seasons in Philly, including four 6-plus WARP campaigns and four top-ten Cy Young finishes, before he was dealt to Texas at the 2015 deadline.
What Went Right in 2016
By WARP Hamels produced his best season since 2012 last year, with the eighth-best DRA in baseball (minimum 100 innings) and the 17th-best cFIP. As a fantasy asset he produced $17 in standard mixed leagues to rate 35th among pitchers, and that comes a year after he returned $15 and checked in 37th. That range appears to be something of a new normal for American League Hamels, and he has attempted to adapt to the junior circuit (and Arlington’s jet stream) by mixing his repertoire much more thoroughly since arriving. The net effect of that has been to erode his efficiency some, though he has managed to raise his groundball rate and keep his contact and hit rates under control. He was able to induce weaker, out-of-zone contact more frequently last season, while maintaining an overall whiff rate in line with his career average. His curveball continued its later-career evolution into a dominant pitch, producing the second-best whiff rate of any regular left-handed curve as he increased the frequency of its deployment for a fourth consecutive season.
Mark Barry made a compelling case for Hamels as a draft target last week, noting the outstanding year-in, year-out production over a long career. The southpaw extended a streak of producing a cFIP under 85 and a DRA south of three and a quarter to seven seasons last year, working at least 200 innings in each of those campaigns and striking out 8.75-per-nine along the way.
What Went Wrong in 2016
Hamels struggled to find the strike zone with the first pitches of at-bats, logging the highest percentage of ball-one counts since his rookie season. And in the 361 plate appearances in which he fell behind batters dropped 350 points of additional OPS, while he was more than twice as likely to wind up issuing a walk. That was the primary driver for a walk rate that spiked by about two percentage points and .8 on a per-nine basis last year and pushed his WHIP north of 1.30 for the first time in his career.
His changeup’s effectiveness – long a pillar of his success by driving split neutrality – really fell off a cliff against right-handers, as he struggled to keep it in the zone long enough to fool hitters. Right-handed opponents swung and missed far less often at the cambio, and their .455 slugging percentage against it was nearly 60 points higher than their best prior season’s effort. His attempt at carving out a workaround adjustment on the fly didn’t prove particularly effective, either. In the stead of his change, he began leaning much more heavily on his cutter, going to it as his secondary of choice after its usage rate had sat comfortably behind the changeup throughout his entire career. He threw the pitch nearly 70 percent more often than he had in 2015 against righties, but that just resulted in more fly balls, and a spike in slugging against that offering. Righties got him for 117 more OPS points than lefties, which marked a stark departure from the sometimes-severe reverse splits that highlighted his earlier career.
What to Expect in 2017
Hamels is currently going off the board as the 19th pitcher in NFBC drafts, 83rd overall and sandwiched in between Jacob deGrom and Masahiro Tanaka among hurlers. That’s about a six dollar premium on his returned-value last year, and while it can be extrapolated that managers are buying consistency with that price tag, his current range nonetheless represents more accurately his market value of three years ago.
The temptation to invest in a high floor and expect some rebound potential is justifiable. Hamels is 33 now, but he’s not a pitcher who has ever leaned particularly heavily on his velocity to drive his effectiveness. And whatever, he’s thrown harder in the past two seasons than he ever has, thank you very much: His four-seamer was the 15th hardest on average of any left-hander last year, on par with Chris Sale’s and a whopping .1 miles-per-hour slower than Kershaw’s.
The creeping splits and crumbling control do appear to be taking the shape of trend lines at this point, however, and they do represent a cause for pause. His issues last year stemmed in no small part from a fairly sudden stroke of ineffectiveness at commanding a pitch that had been a hallmark weapon for the better part of a decade previously. An offseason of diagnosis and tampering could certainly stem that tide, either through rediscovery of lost feel for the change or a further arsenal adjustment to combat the pitch’s real decline.
Regardless, there are some yellow warning signs in Hamels’ profile in a way there really haven’t been for a long time. I don’t believe it wise to overstate them too significantly, but they’re there, and counting on Hamels to produce SP2 value – as drafters are currently doing – seems a bit of a riskier proposition than it did this time last year.
The Great Beyond
Broadly speaking, the smart money – wagered while cross-referencing an overwhelming majority of aging curves – suggests Hamels’ days as an annual top-20 pitcher on draft boards are probably headed towards their end. Another season in line with the last two would probably be enough to facilitate the beginning of a slide, especially given his litany of early-career back, shoulder, and elbow issues, and the fact that he has gamely worn a ton of innings through his physical prime. There are no radar gun red flags or anything like that right now to suggest a heightened risk of implosion, though it is certainly not without a note of intrigue that PECOTA assigns him the third-highest collapse potential (38 percent) of any of the literally thousand-plus pitchers in the 2017 database. The chances are that Hamels remains a solid, productive fantasy pitcher for the next several years, and given the pedigree it certainly shouldn’t surprise anyone if he bounces back to post one or two more top-20 seasons.
For those approaching the end of a window on the win curve, however, it is not unreasonable to begin to entertain the idea of moving him a little too early in order to protect themselves from waiting a little too late. Conversely, those thinking about acquiring or drafting Hamels for a run in the here and now would be wise hedge a bit and value him as more of an SP3 with diminishing dynasty value ahead. We’re still talking about a very good fantasy pitcher in both the present and, we can expect, the near-future, just perhaps not one who should be considered an indispensable rotation cog for much longer.
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