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Cole Hamels and the Hero's Quest Narrative

On Sunday, after the Phillies finished doing to the Braves what Tobias Beecher did to Vern Schillinger in season one of Oz, 610 WIP was positively abuzz with praise for the fantastic season Cole Hamels has had to this point. Indeed, with the exception of his first start of the season, Phillies fans and certain sectors of the media have been good about giving the occasionally-maligned ace his props.

But, perhaps unsurprisingly, there was little discussion on WIP of concrete things that Cole Hamels has done to become a better pitcher over the past two seasons. Rather, the discussion centered on how much "more confident" and "more mature" he has been. If by "more confident" and "more mature" the radio host meant that Cole Hamels has become a better pitcher by making significant improvements in the directly pitching-related areas that pitchers are known to be able to control (and are knowable, thanks to statistics), then he would have been right on. Of course, that is not what he meant.

The belief that Cole Hamels is a better pitcher because he is "more confident" and "more mature" rests on the mistaken assumption that his past struggles resulted from a lack of these things. It is all a part of what we will call Cole Hamels's "Hero's Quest Narrative". In 2008, Cole Hamels arrived as one of the game's bright young pitching stars, capping off a fantastic regular season with a World Series MVP trophy. 2009, in turn, was a year of struggles and frustration. In 193.2 innings, Hamels posted a 4.32 ERA and public opinion began to turn against our hero. The perception emerged that he was "obsessed with himself and the spotlight," "soft," and "a quitter" and that he lacked confidence, composure, and maturity. Suddenly, everyone in Philadelphia was a body language expert. Meanwhile, sanerational people were pointing out that Hamels's peripheral stats were practically identical to those of the season before. In 2008 he posted an FIP/xFIP of 3.72/3.58; in 2009, 3.72/3.63. The major difference was just simple bad luck: in 2008 he posted a .259 BABIP, in 2009 it was .317.

So if the widely-held belief was that Cole Hamels was an immature, pansy-ass headcase with no composure on the mound, then it follows that if his results were to subsequently improve it would have to be because he is no longer those things. And don't ya know it, the results subsequently improved. And I'll be damned if people didn't start claiming it was because Hamels was more mature and composed. 

Sure, it certainly could be true. Hamels could finally be rising to his historic task and coming into his own as a True Ace(TM). But as of now this remains confined to the realm of the unknowable--we aren't Hamels, so we can't know what he is truly thinking or how he is truly feeling. While we may to try to parse his body language, I know of no statistical studies that have demonstrated good body language to necessarily lead to good pitching.

Personally, I think he is a better pitcher because he has added two new pitches to his repertoire--both of them above average. The cutter in particular has been spectacular, coming in at 2.04 runs above average per 100 pitches. I think he is a better pitcher because he has added nearly 2 mph to his fastball since 2009. I think he is a better pitcher because he has improved his command while generating more strikeouts. Whereas in 2009 he posted a 7.81 K/9 against a 2.00 BB/9, in 2011 he has raised the K/9 to 8.25 and dropped the BB/9 to 1.64. I think he is a better pitcher because he has kept the ball on the ground a stellar 53% of the time (his previous career high was 45.4) while posting career-low line drive and fly ball rates. And finally, I think he is a better pitcher because he has benefitted from a bit of good luck. His .257 BABIP is unsustainably low, as is his 6.3 HR/FB%. Still, he has posted a 2.43 FIP and a 2.73 xFIP, which both rank third in baseball. Hamels is by all relevant statistical measures an ace.

The problem with the Hero's Quest Narrative, though, is that it blames Hamels for something that is not his fault (2009) and doesn't properly credit him for the things that are (2010, 2011). Frankly, I prefer baseball discussion that takes place in the realm of the knowable. In short, I think Cole Hamels is a better pitcher because he is, you know, a better pitcher.