Friday, April 27, 2012

Hammel's secret weapon: his two-seamer

Coming into this season, Jason Hammel was thought of as an average, fifth-starter type. He's never finished a season with an ERA under 4.33, though that's not an easy thing to do when pitching in Coors Field. But in 2009 and 2010, his peripheral numbers weren't that bad -- he was striking out a decent amount and not walking many while inducing a bunch of ground balls -- which partially explains him posting 3.9 fWAR (FanGraphs WAR) in each of those seasons. In 2011, though, Hammel's walks were up, his strikeouts were down, and his ground ball rate dropped a few percentage points. All of that happened while his BABIP (.280) was actually more than 45 points lower than those previous two seasons. So Hammel wasn't exactly a hot commodity.

Regardless, Hammel pitched more than 170 innings in each of those seasons in Colorado, and the Orioles, always looking for at least average-ish starters who can eat innings, pulled the trigger on the offseason move to bring Hammel and reliever Matt Lindstrom to Baltimore in exchange for Jeremy Guthrie. Neither Hammel nor Lindstrom is a prospect, and the move didn't really save the O's any money, so Dan Duquette either saw something in Hammel that no one else did or simply wanted to shore up the bullpen a little while also acquiring an OK starter.

After pitching seven shutout innings against the Blue Jays in a 3-0 win on Wednesday night, Hammel is now 3-0 with a 1.73 ERA. In 26 innings, he's struck out 25 and only walked eight. He's also getting a ton of ground balls, thanks to what appears to be a much-improved two-seam fastball. I don't remember reading much on Hammel's two-seamer in the offseason or its development, but I'm sure it was reported. Then again, pitchers, catchers, and coaches work on  a lot of things in the offseason, and obviously not all of them work or continue to be utilized throughout the season.

Here's a quote from Hammel after his first start of the season, against the Twins:
"What I did in Spring Training, [and] at the end of last year was a huge help," said Hammel, who called Sunday's start the best of his career. "[I] changed my focus on the mound, I was starting to wander, think of the wrong things instead of what I could do. It's really changed my game a lot."
Hammel and O's pitching coach Rick Adair apparently put in some work on improving Hammel's two-seamer in spring training, and so far it's paying off. Here's a more recent quote on Hammel by Lindstrom:
"When we came over together, I knew what kind of pitcher the Orioles were getting in him," Lindstrom said. "He's mixing his pitches well, and what I'm also seeing is Jason mixing in his two-seam fastball and utilizing it a lot more in counts where hitters think they're getting a four-seamer, and it's devastating. I'm his catch partner every day, so I think we're helping each other every day."
So what's the difference? Hammel is getting much more movement on the pitch, and because of that he's confident enough to throw it more often. Via PitchFx, Hammel hasn't thrown a whole lot of two-seamers prior to this year. This year, 40.5 percent of Hammel's pitches have been two-seamers; last year he was at 13.1 percent, and 6.3 percent the year before that. It's possible PitchFx lumped lots of those offerings in with other fastballs, but it's more likely that he's throwing many more of them now.

Hammel's mostly throwing fastballs and sliders, and he's been extremely effective doing so. It's also helpful that his fastball velocity (currently about 93.4 mph) is the hardest he's thrown in his career, though again, it's very early in the season.

In a post yesterday on Hammel, Daniel Moroz of Camden Crazies noted that Hammel's increased velocity is causing more movement, leading to more swings and misses. He also mentions that Hammel's slider is getting more swings and misses, which may be directly related to how efficient Hammel's fastballs have been. If opposing hitters are worried about Hammel pounding the corners with fastballs, they may be caught off guard with a well-timed, well-placed slider.

I'm required to mention that this is a small sample of innings and that Hammel is due for a rough start in the near future. But if he keeps throwing this hard, getting similar movement on his pitches, and mixing up his repertoire well, he could end up with his best season as a pro. And that would make a lot of O's fans happy.