MESA, Ariz. - Shortly after the Cubs were swept out of the National League Championship Series by the New York Mets, Theo Epstein chalked up 2015 as a "tale of two halves" for Jason Hammel.
Hammel had just taken the loss in the deciding Game 4 of the NLCS, surrendering five runs in 1.1 innings. It was a continuation of a rough second half for the veteran starter, who put up a 5.10 ERA after the All-Star Break (he boasted a 2.86 ERA heading into the break).
Hammel admitted his struggles last year were both mental and physical as he dealt with leg injuries that affected his mechanics.
This spring, Hammel showed up to camp looking like a completely different guy after shedding some weight and growing a big, bushy beard over the winter.
So, new year, new Hammel?
"Not to overdo that, but just to switch it up a little bit," he said. "Kinda break up that monotony of getting stuck in that same routine. That was kinda the idea of everything this offseason - see what else there was that I haven't discovered yet."
Hammel focused on strengthening and conditioning his legs more over the offseason in an effort to stay healthy and durable throughout the course of a long season.
He even sought help from outside sources to get different opinions from people who didn't have any preconceived notions about how to fix his injury issues.
"At some point, you have to realize - and I feel like I've actually arrived at this point a couple times in my career - where I have to do something more," he said. "Kinda re-evaluate the mechanics and try to figure out why I was faltering at the end of the year.
"I want to be the best that I can be. Not to say there's inner demons or anything like that, but I had to figure something out. I had to find a way to get better. As you get older, things don't come as easily. The body doesn't bounce back as quickly."
Hammel didn't want to blame his rough second half on just the injuries, acknowledging he wasn't getting the job done.
Hammel - who claimed he didn't pay attention to any possibility he'd be included in an offseason trade - said he didn't blame Joe Maddon for all those quick hooks in August and September, saying he hopes to "squash" that storyline.
Maddon and Hammel go way back to their Tampa Bay days starting in 2006 and the Cubs manager also brushed aside any notion of lasting resentment from Hammel's early exits last season.
"If you don't have arguments or discussions or disagreements - whatever you want to call them - with your group over a course of time, then you're really not doing your job," Maddon said. "You're not going to keep everybody 100 percent happy all the time."
Maddon made sure to add that he and Hammel are good now and he talked up the 33-year-old's offseason work, saying Hammel was in the best shape of his life.
Hammel's spring physique didn't go unnoticed among his teammates, either, as both Jake Arrieta and Jon Lester complimented Hammel's conditioning and mindset.
"He seems like he's more relaxed," Lester said. "I think he just feels more comfortable. He looks great. He says he feels great, which is always good, especially - as pitchers - we need our legs and he had that leg injury last year. You could really tell he struggled after that to kinda maintain his delivery.
"When you start doing that stuff, you start pressing a little more. It becomes hard to kinda catch up when you're behind the eight ball like that. It's good to see him healthy."
Hammel said he spoke to Arrieta a bit about offseason training, but hasn't yet taken to pilates the way the reigning NL Cy Young winner has.
"He just rededicated himself," Arrieta said. "He wanted to make some changes. I'm very, very happy for him and proud of him for doing the things he did this offseason.
"He's committed to making himself better, which in turn, is going to make us a lot better as a team."
As for the beard, Hammel figured he might as well try something new, joking maybe it was his midlife crisis. Plus, it gives him something to talk about with teammates like Arrieta.
"I was asking Jake what he uses in his," Hammel said. "I'm sure it's like Sabertooth tiger blood or something."