MESA, Ariz. — Jason Hammel on Monday made his first start since his disastrous second half last year, debuting a minor windup tweak he and the Cubs hope will help him remain consistently effective throughout the 2016 season.
The 33-year-old right-hander, who’s in the final year of a two-year, $20 million deal, incorporated a shoulder and hip turn into his motion this offseason with the goal of fostering more consistency with his fastball, which was at the root of his second half struggles last summer. As the Cubs stormed their way into the playoffs with 97 wins, Hammel posted a 5.10 ERA in 14 starts, and then was torched in two postseason starts (4.1 IP, 7 ER).
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Hammel threw his fastball for a strike 70 percent of the time before 2015’s All-Star break — which also coincided with him suffering a left hamstring injury — but saw that percentage drop five points in the second half. While that drop may seem minor, Hammel had a 2.86 ERA in 17 starts before that injury hit in a July 8 start against the St. Louis Cardinals.
“That’s where it all starts and is what I talked about my whole career,” Hammel said. “… Fastball command is one thing, fastballs down in the zone is another. I think I did a lot better with that today, so so far, so good.”
Hammel fired two innings against the Kansas City Royals on Monday — a game the Cubs lost, 3-2 — allowing one hit and one walk with a strikeout. He estimated he successfully timed his delivery about 50 to 60 percent of the time, and was better from the windup than the stretch. It’s still early in spring training, though, and Hammel said the motion is natural to him.
“When I do click it, it feels much better, and the delivery is effortless,” Hammel said.
Cubs manager Joe Maddon said he “(loves) the delivery” and noted how different it is from the one Hammel used during the pair’s first stint together with the Tampa Bay Rays from 2006-2008.
“If he's able to nail down early on where that fastball is going, he will take off,” Maddon said. “He will take off quickly and then the thing would be to maintain that delivery all season and get into the latter part of the year and still be highly successful."
The Cubs went 50-25 after the All-Star break last year despite Hammel’s issues, and clinched the National League Division Series against the Cardinals with Hammel starting Game 4. But, as was the case for most of the second half, Maddon exercised extreme caution with Hammel, yanking him after three shaky innings.
Madden hopes Hammel will use spring training to set a foundation with his delivery that’ll allow the second-year Cubs skipper to trust him throughout the season and then, if everything goes according to plan, in the playoffs. Hammel’s start Monday was another step toward sustaining the kind of level of success he's proven he can reach in the past.
"He came to terms with what happened at the end of last season,” Maddon said. “I think he's been accountable to that moment. He knows he has to get better. I like that. Right now, when I talk to him, he's in a pretty calm, good spot right now. And I think he's eager to see himself play because he knows the adjustments he's made are good and he feels good about them.
“I'm not even worried about (spring training results). I want to see repetition of this delivery. A major league pitcher should be able to throw a strike with his fastball when he wants to. If he gets in those moments and he is throwing his fastball where he wants to, even if he gets hit a little bit, I don't care. Seeing that part of it, that component of it is really important."