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Hamels: Dizzying Highs, Terrifying Lows

At this point in what has turned into a miserable 2006 season, a Cole Hamels start is the only occasion left where I'll plan my evening around the Phillies. So I settled in last night to follow the game--and for five innings, I didn't regret it. With the exception of back-to-back solo homers in the second, Hamels seemed to have his triple-A cape and tights back on: he struck out the side three times and looked ready to challenge the franchise record for strikeouts by a rookie (Jack Sanford, 13, 1957) after racking up 12 on 89 pitches.

Then the roof fell in. Just as he had in the fatal 9th inning the previous night, Marcus Giles drew a leadoff walk in the 6th--on a pitch some thought should have been a backwards K for Hamels' record-tying 13th whiff. And just as he had the previous night, Edgar Renteria followed with a run-scoring double. Add in some klutzy defensive plays, fast-forward through a few unpleasant at-bats, and Hamels' night was over after Adam LaRoche (.819 OPS, career; 1.063 OPS, career vs. Phillies) hit his second home run of the evening. The CBP crowd at least had the discernment to mix in loud cheers for Hamels with their booing of Charlie Manuel.

So where does this leave the Phils' prized young lefty, whose season numbers include an unsightly 2-5 record and 5.98 ERA?

The answer, I think, is: pretty much where we could have hoped. First of all, just that he's healthy is wonderful news: Hamels has made 11 starts in the majors, plus seven in the minors, throwing 105.2 innings at all levels. That's more than in his previous two seasons combined. But he's done more than just show up. In the majors, Hamels is now averaging over 10 strikeouts per 9 innings, and opponents are hitting just .260 off him. The 10 home runs allowed in 56.2 innings is obviously more than you'd like to see, but as this wasn't a problem through Hamels' pro career before reaching the bigs, I'm not yet too worried about it.

Actually, Cole's dominance through the minors before reaching Philadelphia might be working against him now. During the broadcast last night, Larry Andersen noted how Hamels seems to change his approach when pitching from the stretch. A comparison of his numbers with the bases empty versus runners on bears this out:

None on: 30-126 (.238), 5 HR, 16 BB, 37 K, .784 OOPS
Runners on: 26-89 (.292), 5 HR, 11 BB, 25 K, .878 OOPS

I wonder if other young pitchers who were more or less equally dominant in the minors showed similar splits. Some have suggested that Hamels needs to develop a third pitch to complement his low/mid-90s heat and killer change-up. That's probably valid as well, but his big issue as he works to translate his obvious talent into ace-level results might just be figuring out how to pitch in a pinch.