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Is Cole Hamels a Top-10 Pitcher?

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With the Winter Meetings already underway, it is time we reflect on and preemptively remember the greatness of Cole Hamels.

"Damn right I'm good. And cool, too"--Cole Hamels, probably
"Damn right I'm good. And cool, too"--Cole Hamels, probably
Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

In his Wednesday column for ESPN.com, Buster Olney, among other things, ranked the top-10 pitchers in baseball, plus some obligatory honorable mentions. In a move that will likely shock some, Olney put Hamels as the 10th best pitcher in baseball.

Even though we all love Cole here at The Good Phight, it is clear that Hamels' status as one of the 10 best pitchers in the game is, at the very least, a matter for debate. Before embarking on the inquiry, my personal bias is that Hamels, by most reasonable measures, will comfortably be a top 10 pitcher in baseball, perhaps even top 5, although I'm open to discovering that my perception is clouded by emotion and stupid things like that. I noted in a game recap late in the season that I thought, had Clayton Kershaw been in the AL, Hamels would be the NL Cy Young favorite, so I could be in for a bit of a let-down in what follows. So, biases and expectations having been acknowledged, let's begin.

First, we need some criteria for determining the best pitchers in baseball. Many recent articles on Hamels' trade value have cited statistics on his performance over his career or spans of time of 5+ years. Those tell us how good a career Hamels has had compared to current pitchers. What we want to know, however, is where Hamels currently ranks among Major League pitchers. In the interest of that question, I'm going to look at two sets of data: 1) for pitchers who had at least 130IP in 2014 and 2) pitchers who have pitched 300 innings over the past 3 seasons.

Second, so as not to get distracted by pitchers who are definitely not better than Cole Hamels, I'm going to restrict this study to the 21 pitchers Olney identifies as top-10 candidates in his article. Our innings restrictions will eliminate Masahiru Tanaka, Matt Harvey, and Jose Fernandez from our discussion, so I'll leave them out. While they might or might not be better than Hamels, we simply don't have enough data on them.

Third, I'm going to look at the following stats for these pitchers: ERA, ERA+ (to adjust for ballpark), xFIP, and rWAR (I prefer RA-based pitcher WAR over FIP-based). I realize that using WAR, a counting stat, is going to favor those who pitched more innings. I'm totally fine rewarding pitchers who pitch more: inning eating is an undervalued skill that is important to have from a position that has been so ravaged by injury recently.

Without further ado, let's see the results:

2014 (Rank within Group in Parentheses)

Name

ERA

ERA+

xFIP

rWAR

Kershaw

1.77 (1)

197 (1)

2.08 (1)

7.5 (1)

Hernandez

2.14 (2)

170 (3)

2.51 (2)

6.8 (3)

Sale

2.17 (3)

178 (2)

2.83 (8)

6.6 (5)

Bumgarner

2.98 (14)

116 (19)

2.99 (10)

4.0 (14)

Cueto

2.25 (4)

160 (4)

3.21 (16)

6.4 (6)

Wainwright

2.38 (5)

154 (6)

3.34 (18)

6.1 (7)

Scherzer

3.15 (18)

127 (15)

3.12 (13)

6.0 (8)

Kluber

2.44 (6)

150 (8)

2.57 (4)

7.4 (2)

Price

3.26 (19)

117 (18)

2.76 (7)

4.6 (11)

Hamels

2.46 (8)

151 (7)

3.21 (15)

6.6 (4)

Darvish

3.06 (15)

128 (14)

2.96 (9)

3.2 (19)

J. Zimmerman

2.66 (10)

142 (9)

3.10 (12)

4.9 (9)

G.Richards

2.61 (9)

139 (11)

3.15 (14)

4.4 (12)

Greinke

2.71 (11)

129 (13)

2.72 (6)

4.3 (13)

Lester

2.46 (7)

155 (5)

3.10 (11)

4.6 (10)

Strasburg

3.14 (17)

120 (16)

2.56 (3)

3.5 (16)

Cobb

2.87 (13)

130 (12)

3.33 (17)

3.9 (15)

Gray

3.08 (16)

120 (17)

3.47 (19)

3.2 (18)

Just looking at 2014, four tiers emerge. In the top tier is Kershaw, Hernandez, Sale, and Kluber. There is second tier of Cueto, Wainwright, Hamels, Lester. The third tier: Bumgarner, Scherzer, Price, Darvish, Zimmerman, Greinke. At the bottom, and, if I may say so, there's a gaping chasm between tier three and these pitchers: Richards, Cobb, Gray. Since these three pitchers won't improve in our extended study, I'm going to drop them from the next table.

So what are the takeaways from last year's data? Hamels is probably one of the top 8 pitchers in baseball unless someone from tier three makes a jump when we look at longer-term results. Putting aside Kluber for a second, it's also unlikely we'll find Hamels to be one to the three best pitchers in the game. Kershaw, Hernandez and Sale were clearly better than Hamels in 2014 and based on what we know of them by reputation, it's unlikely Hamels will catch them over a longer view.

Let's look now at data over the past 3 seasons:

2012-2014 (minimum 300 IP)

Name

ERA

ERA+

xFIP

rWAR

Kershaw

2.05 (1)

176 (1)

2.76 (1)

21.6 (1)

Hernandez

2.73 (3)

136 (4)

2.79 (2)

16.7 (4)

Sale

2.80 (4)

148 (3)

3.01 (5)

19.4 (2)

Bumgarner

3.04 (7)

114 (13)

3.25 (11)

10.0 (12)

Cueto

2.54 (2)

151 (2)

3.40 (13)

13.8 (7)

Wainwright

3.05 (8)

123 (12)

3.11 (8)

13.4 (8)

Scherzer

3.24 (12)

127 (6)

3.17 (10)

16.9 (3)

Kluber

3.31 (14)

114 (14)

2.95 (4)

8.3 (14)

Price

3.05 (9)

125 (10)

3.02 (6)

14.3 (6)

Hamels

3.05 (10)

126 (8)

3.30 (12)

15.9 (5)

Darvish

3.27 (13)

127 (7)

3.11 (7)

12.8 (10)

Zimmerman

2.96 (5)

131 (5)

3.45 (14)

13.4 (9)

Greinke

2.96 (6)

125 (9)

3.12 (9)

11.8 (11)

Lester

3.65 (15)

111 (15)

3.60 (15)

8.3 (15)

Strasburg

3.10 (11)

124 (11)

2.83 (3)

9.6 (13)

The first conclusion I jump to is this: how did everyone decide Jon Lester a similarly skilled pitcher to Cole Hamels? Over the past three seasons, he is clearly the worst of this group. My guess for an explanation is the fact that Lester has been so prominent in the last 5 months--2nd best pitcher moved at the deadline, started the Wild Card game for the A's, current free agent. Pitching in Boston for 8 years probably didn't hurt either. In other words, I think he's benefiting, like your local congressman, from name recognition.

Second, as expected, over a longer sample of performance, Corey Kluber falls out of the top tier, leaving Clayton Kershaw, Felix Hernandez, and Chris Sale searching for a 4th to join them on the starting pitching Mount Rushmore. They'll just have to wait for Aaron Nola to establish himself over the next 3 or 4 years.

The 4th - 14th spots on this list are a little tricky to determine as it looks like time has healed the wound dividing tiers two and three from 2014. Based entirely on the three year numbers, Kluber would fall to 14th, but his 2014 was so dominant that it demands some extra weight. Let's then try to see who is clearly better than Hamels on the list. I think I'm willing to admit that Cueto and Wainwright are better than Hamels at this moment, despite potential age and injury concerns about Wainwright. So Hamels is no better than the 6th best pitcher in baseball.

Who on this list, aside from Lester, is clearly worse than Hamels? This may seem strange after his historic playoff performance, but Madison Bumgarner's regular season numbers simply don't match up with Hamels. Darvish, for as wonderful as his endless supply of GIF-worthy pitches is, has not produced the results Hamels has.

So now we've pegged Hamels as somewhere between 6th and 12th best pitcher in baseball along with Scherzer, Kluber, Price, Zimmerman, Greinke, and Strasburg. In terms of current ability, I think we can safely drop Strasburg from this list. Like Darvish, Strasburg has amazing stuff but has consistently underperformed his FIP over his career. After three full seasons in the majors, it's fair to think he might consistently underperform his peripheral statistics.

I don't feel comfortable making any strong statements of difference between Hamels, Scherzer, Price, Greinke, and Zimmerman. As much as I want to say that Hamels is definitively Zimmerman's superior, the numbers just don't allow that conclusion.

To make Hamels a definitively top 10 pitcher, we need to finally address the question head-on: what gives with Corey Kluber? Kluber put together a dominant 2014 and rightfully won the AL Cy Young. Typically, a guy who comes out of nowhere to such single-season dominance rides in on a wave of high strand rates and low BABIPs.  Not so for Kluber he performed in line with both his FIP/xFIP, and his .316 opponents BABIP doesn't set off any alarms.

Yet, despite all that, I'm still not willing to take the leap and say I would rather have Kluber. Just 18 months ago, he was seen as a mid-rotation starter, and even that was a significant upward adjustment for 27 year-old non-prospect. Until this season, there was nothing about Kluber to really even dream on much more than mid-rotation starter. Yes, he was fantastic in 2014 and deserving of the AL Cy Young by any reasonable measure, but I'm not going to take him over Hamels--who has pitched at a high level for years--next year.

That leaves Hamels between 6 and 10 in our pitcher rankings and his company in that range--Scherzer, Price, Greinke, Zimmerman--feels about right. If you were to make me rank those 5, I'd go Scherzer, Greinke, Hamels, Price, Zimmerman, making Hamels the 8th best pitcher in baseball. At the very least, it's clear he belongs in any discussion of the top pitchers in the game and his contract seems about right in that context; in fact, it might look pretty cheap after Lester and Scherzer sign in the coming weeks.

I don't know enough about prospect valuation and how other teams view Hamels in the context of the $100+ million left on his contract (4 years at $23.5M guaranteed plus, at minimum, a $6M buyout for 2019) to speculate on what the Phillies might demand in return. Regardless, that Phillies fans have been spoiled by getting to watch Cole Hamels pitch for the past 9 season (yes, even his incredibly frustrating 2009) is indisputable. It's unlikely we'll have the privilege of seeing one of the best pitchers in baseball take the mound for the Phillies every 5th day any time soon. Let's not forget, then, to appreciate one of the 10 best pitchers in the game while Cole Hamels is still a Phillie.