Fourteen months ago, the Philadelphia Phillies selected Cole Hamels with the 17th pick in the first round, though he was rated between the seventh- and 12th-best prospect going into the draft. As a high school pitcher, he was already lumped into the high-risk category. The fractured humerus he suffered during an off-field incident his junior year didn’t help, as several teams refused to invest several million dollars in the health of his left arm. However, his injury was much less severe than the ones to Dave Dravecky and Tony Saunders, who snapped their humerus bones while pitching. Hamels suffered a small crack after colliding with a car mirror during a game of football, and was back on the mound for his senior year.
The Phillies cleared him with their team doctors, along with the ones who originally worked on Hamels’ arm, then signed him at the end of the summer for $2 million, the 13th-largest bonus given to anyone from last year’s class. His arm was not in game shape when he arrived for the Fall Instructional League, and he made his only appearance in the last game of camp. Due to his inexperience, the Phillies held him back in extended Spring Training for the first two months of 2003, in order to “let him get the teaching he would receive at a summer league,” according to Mike Arbuckle, the Phillies’ assistant general manager and director of player development.
He was worth the wait. Hamels’ stint in the South Atlantic League was one of the most impressive performances the minor leagues have seen since Rick Ankiel opened eyes in 1998. What Cole Hamels accomplished in his first 13 trips to the mound as a professional ballplayer is simply astounding.
Starts Innings Hits Home Runs Walks Strikeouts ERA 13 74 2/3 32 0 25 115 0.84
He faced 268 batters and retired all but 60 of them. No less than 43% of the plate appearances by opposing hitters ended with the umpire yelling strike three. His rate of 13.86 strikeouts-per-nine-innings is a remarkable 95% above the league average and the best of any full-season starter in the game. There’s no question that Hamels earned his promotion to the Florida State League.
How does his run compare to other dominating performances in recent history? Below is a list of pitchers who threw a minimum of 100 innings with a strikeout rate at least 60% above league average in the past 10 years:
Name Year Level Age Innings K/9 Ratio ERA Ryan Anderson 2000 Triple-A 20 104 12.6 89% 3.98 A.J. Burnett 1998 Low-A 21 119 14.0 83% 1.98 Nick Neugebauer 2001 Double-A 20 106.2 14.9 69% 3.46 Rick Ankiel 1998 High-A 18 126 18.1 67% 2.79 Brad Pennington 1998 Triple-A 29 100 12.5 66% 4.86 Joel Bennett 1997 Double-A 27 113.1 14.6 66% 3.18 Ben Howard 2000 High-A 21 107.1 15.0 64% 6.37 Mo Sanford 1994 Triple-A 28 125.2 14.1 63% 5.15 Tim Redding 1999 Low-A 21 105 14.1 61% 4.97 Ryan Anderson 1998 Low-A 18 111.1 15.2 60% 3.23
Sanford, Bennett, and Pennington were minor league veterans, so we won’t bother with them for this comparison. That leaves six pitching prospects who have dominated the league strikeout totals like few before them or since. There are two similarities between the six that stand out above the rest; velocity and injury. Anderson, Burnett, Ankiel, Neugebauer, and Howard consistently threw in the high 90s before their arms fell apart. Redding was the softy of the group, regularly clocking at “only” 95. Perhaps not coincidentally, each member of the group has missed at least one full season due to injuries, as Redding has been the only member to succeed in the major leagues. The dangers of betting the farm on young pitchers’ arms has been well noted, and the above list reminds us that Hamels still has to avoid the doctor in order to live up to his promise. We’ll leave the medical analysis to Will Carroll, however, and get back to the subject at hand.
Hamels’ work in the South Atlantic League outshines all of them. He not only posted the best strikeout rate relative to league average, but his ERA’s in a class by itself as well. More impressive than his performance, though, is how he has attained such lofty heights. Hamels does not possess the extraordinary velocity or intimidation of his predecessors, but has surpassed their accomplishments with a different means of domination.
Hamels is listed at 6’3″ and 175 pounds and he looks every bit the 19-year-old kid that he is. That is, until he steps on the mound. His mechanics are good by major league standards and nearly unheard of for a pitcher with his experience. He drives with his legs, has a clean arm action, and repeats his delivery well. “We don’t feel the need to change his delivery at all,” Arbuckle told me.
Hamels spent most of Friday night pitching between 87-90 with his fastball. He has enough movement to make it a solid pitch, but he won’t rack up a lot of strikeouts with it. Occasionally, he would hit 92 when he got it up in the zone and put a little extra effort into the pitch. As he adds some muscle to his legs, he may be able to add a few miles per hour to his fastball, though he’ll likely always pitch in the low 90s.
Hamels’ slow curveball is an out pitch with good break that also tails away from left-handers. He threw it regularly between 76-78 and kept it down in the strike zone most of the game. He hung a couple up in the zone, but Greensboro’s offense failed to take advantage. He spins the ball well and does not telegraph his curve, but simply needs to locate it more consistently.
His combination of fastball and curve would make him an interesting prospect, but there is a sizeable list of pitchers who could match his stuff on those two pitches alone. It is his change-up that sets him apart and makes him one of the premier southpaws in the game. If you put Hamels on the Phillies right now, he’d have the best change-up on the team. It would be a struggle for me to name 10 major league pitchers who have a better one. His change-up is easily the best off-speed pitch I have seen this year. His arm speed is nearly identical to his fastball, making it impossible to pick up before the ball leaves his hand. He gets great fade on the pitch, making it equally tough on right-handed batters. When he threw it at the lower end of his 77-80 range, he would get some additional sink on the ball, making it a groundball waiting to happen.
Hamels’ command of the strike zone is above average, but could still use some improvement. He isn’t a pure strike-throwing machine like Zack Greinke, but he will keep his walk totals at acceptable levels. The fact that he can induce a swing-and-a-miss with his change-up and still keep the ball in the strike zone is a definite plus. If the hitter won’t get himself out by swinging, the umpire will simply call strike three.
The other fundamentals that go into making a good pitcher are too difficult to analyze in one outing. But Arbuckle noted that “his pitchability, work ethic, and make-up are all plus tools as well. We’re going to send him to the Florida State League to give him a challenge for the rest of the year.” While management will almost always say good things about the club’s own players, the Phillies are backing up their comments with Hamels’ promotion to Clearwater.
History hasn’t been kind to high school pitchers selected in the first round. The standard caveats of risk still apply, though Hamels’ mechanics should alleviate some of the concern about his future health. While the risk is high, the reward with Hamels is higher. It is clear that the Phillies are impressed with their young southpaw, and after watching Cole Hamels in person, so am I.