Cole Hamels has been with the Phillies since coming up in 2006. In this, his seventh season in Major League Baseball, we might be seeing his last year in a Phillies uniform. During that time, a partial list of the memes and themes he has inspired includes Cole Hamels Facts, unstoppable 2008 playoffs and World Series robot of death, "soft" Warhol-esque Mr. Bizarro who just wanted to end it all in 2009, and fist-pumper. And until last June happened, I thought he might be better than Cliff Lee in 2011.
Hamels' evolution has cycled him through every stage (except the last) of Philadelphia's psychotic adulation of athletes process, and he has survived it all. And he has become a far better pitcher than he was when he first arrived in Philadelphia. The thing that is perhaps hardest to believe about Cole Hamels is that he just turned 28 a few months ago. Since his first season with the Phillies in 2006 through the 2008 World Series MVP year, and on to today, he has been maturing and getting better.
He has evolved from a skinny kid with a killer change up and enormous potential into a skinny front line starter who is one of the elite left-handed starting pitchers in MLB. Among all pitchers in 2011, he was 17th in fWAR at 4.9. A mix of fastball, change, and an erratic curve has given way to fastball, cutter, change, and a show-me curve. The now-effective cutter got better in 2011 after an erratic first year in 2010, and his change remains uber-elite. Hamels has two good pitches, one awesome one, and, well, he can throw a curve. Pitch values here, courtesy of Fangraphs.
Hamels' groundball rate has increased every year, starting with 2008, going from 39.5% to 52.3% in 2011. His fly ball rate stayed the same or decreased every year since he entered the league, helping Hamels to drive down his HR/9 from 1.29 to .79 in 2011. His BB/9, despite a hiccup in 2010, has been trending down since he entered the league, bottoming out at 1.83 in 2011. His K/9 rate has varied, but has bounced around between the high sevens and low nines for the length of his career. These trends have contributed, as you might imagine, to a FIP that has...you guessed it...declined every year he has been in the league. Every year.
Herniated discs on a 28 year-old are something to be cautious about, especially a pitcher, but Hamels has been durable. He has been able to average about 200 innings a year since his first full year in 2007. And in any case, he appears to be reasonably flexible.
And, oh yeah, there's the contract thing.
So...what can the Philadelphia Phillies expect from Cole Hamels in 2012? Is he an ace? Is he great, or just good? Is he done cooking, or will he, like Cliff Lee, take a leap forward and give us a breathtaking second act that transcends the good first act?
Yes, and no. His WAR establishes him as an all-star caliber player, with his rWAR of 5.4 a bit more favorable than the fWAR mentioned above. On most teams, he'd be the best starting pitcher.
Whether Hamels is "done cooking" is an interesting question. The hallmark of Hamels' development so far has been his incremental improvement. No Cliff Lee epiphanies here, perhaps. Just continued and gradual improvement from a starting point that was pretty high to begin with. It sounds casual when put that way, but the consistency of his improvement is remarkable. That is not an accident. And it makes it worth considering how long this trend of improvement can be sustained. The short answer is "I don't know."
During his gradual ascendancy, Hamels has been heading toward the Logan's Run-like summit of baseball maturity. This, in combination with his discovery of an effective cutter, may be enough to explain much of his continuing improvement. Or he could be a dedicated pro who has his head on straight and who works his ass off to get better every year. And the explanations are not mutually exclusive. Whatever the ultimate reason is, there appears to be no reason to expect a serious decline in his physical capabilities since he's just 28 and he hasn't been worked to death. Still, it might be wise to be cautious about expecting 2012's results to be better than 2011's, even in light of his track record.
Hamels benefited from a BABIP in 2011 that was just .255. While this isn't unheard of for Hamels (he had a BABIP against of .259 in 2008), he has also been victimized by higher numbers, notably the .317 posted in a very frustrating 2009. His career average is about .280 and the variability of BABIP-against for pitchers is pretty widely accepted. It is unlikely that he will benefit from the same (or a better) BABIP in 2012. Similarly, the strand rate for 2011 may have helped Hamels out a bit, but at 78.4%, it wasn't much better than 76.9 career average, and it represented a drop off from an 82.7% rate in 2010.
No major red flags here, but the takeaway is that Hamels' improvement does not insulate him from the variability that is inherent in baseball. I think it is defensible that his improvement over his career may have masked the variability of his outcomes somewhat. But that doesn't mean it will forever, and we should consider variability as a factor that should guide our expectations for 2012. I can't predict the direction, but it is plausible that his BABIP will be higher in 2012 than it was in 2011 even if Hamels pitches just as well, or even better. And his BABIP will affect his outcomes, even if his peripherals are consistent. Remember this? (h/t taco pal for the reminder in the comments to the Vance Worley write-up).
The "intangibles" on Hamels factor in here as well. Right? To summarize his "storylines" so far: First, he was injury-prone. Then he was a wunderkind. Then he was soft. Then he matured. Now, we have the "contract year." Just like the prior labels, the "contract year" is crap. It's just another narrative superimposed on the randomness of baseball by writers looking at the entrails of a season and trying to derive meaning from it.
I'm guessing we see something like another 4.5ish WAR season with an xFIP of 3.30, 200 IP, 50 walks, 200 K's, and a 15 - 11 record. But the really interesting part of Hamels' season will be whether the Phillies can hold on to him for the next 5 years of his career. And that part, I cannot predict.