How Cole Hamels has turned his season around with the Cubs

How Cole Hamels has turned his season around with the Cubs

Cole Hamels had the best game of his season last night, throwing 114 pitches in a complete game win. 

Cubs' fans will tell you this was the Cole Hamels they traded for, but there's not a soul on the North Side that could have predicted just how good he's been for them.  So what's changed? 

Let's start with a look at Hamels' rolling ERA over the 2018 season: 

It's not great! When the lowest benchmark on the ERA Y-axis is 3.50, you're having a bad season. What's interesting, though, is the sharp drop in ERA that starts right at Game 20. The date? July 23rd -- his last game as a member of the Texas Rangers. That day the Oakland Athletics slapped him around for seven runs on nine hits, and his day was done after five innings. His ERA when he left the mound was 4.72

In the five games since, his ERA has dropped almost a full run, now hovering at 3.82. In those five starts, Hamels has never allowed more than one run per game and has pitched into the sixth inning or better in four of them. When asked about his Cubs' success, here's what he had to say:

"Sometimes when you strive to get out of something, you make it worse. You kind of have to give in and get back to the basics," Hamels said. "When you’re able to execute pitches, you don't have to strike everybody out. I think that sometimes becomes a factor for a lot of us when things aren’t going right. You just want to strike out the world."

Platitudes aside, he's not wrong. He's throwing strikes again, which is about as basic as basic gets. Hamels has a career BB% at 6.7 percent. In three of his four All-Star seasons, he's kept his BB% under six percent. In Texas this season, he was walking batters at an eight percent clip. Since joining the Cubs? 6.4. It hasn't come at the sacrafice of strikeouts, either, as his K-rate has held steady at 23 percent. 

Why the better command? Look at how Hamels' pitch selection has changed over the course of the season: 

Since mid-June, he's almost doubled the rate at which he throws his four-seamer. And now look at how his four-seamer compares to the other fastballs he throws:

Essentially, this is a long-winded way of saying that his four-seamer is his most reliable fastball. He has better control of it than he does of his cutter or sinker. The latter two might be better strikeout pitches, but his four-seamer has always been a more dependable pitch. Plus, like previously mentioned, it's not like his strikeouts were suffering. His money pitch has always been and will always remain the change up, so going back to a four-seamer to get ahead early in the count makes a ton of sense. (It's also worth noting that his fastball velocity has risen almost a full mile-per-hour since coming to Chicago, which always helps.) 

His four-seamer location has changed dramatically since his arrival, too. Put side-by-side, you can see how drastic his zone approach has been since being traded. The top represents his time with Texas, and on the bottom, Chicago:

He's coming in *much* more frequently on right-handed hitters. That's significant because of the 629 batters he's face this season, 530 have been right handed. That's 84 percent. 

Of the 23 homers Hamels has allowed this year, 22 have come off a right-handed bat. He's yet to allow a right-handed (or any) home run as a Cub, and righties are hitting a paltry .215/.280/.231 against him since the trade. In Texas, that line was .251/.326/.486. 

So what's been different about Hamels? He's getting ahead in the count again. In Texas, Hamels was getting into a 0-1 count 40 percent of the time. In Chicago? The sample size is still small, but right now he's getting a first pitch strike 57 percent of the time. 

Getting ahead in the count, and locating your fastball. Like he said, it's all about getting back to the basics. 

The underlying numbers tell the true story of the 2019 Cubs bullpen


The underlying numbers tell the true story of the 2019 Cubs bullpen

Like their season as a whole, the Cubs bullpen was quite the enigma in 2019.

This season, Cubs relievers posted a 3.98 ERA (No. 8 in MLB) and a .234 batting average against (No. 6 in MLB). On a surface level, that appears good.

But those numbers lose value when paired with what the Cubs bullpen did in high leverage situations: 7.92 ERA (No. 24 in MLB), 15 home runs allowed (tied for No. 22), 61 walks (No. 29) and a .380 on-base percentage (No. 27). The bullpen also blew 28 saves (sixth-most in MLB) and converted just 57.58 percent of their opportunities (No. 22 in MLB).

Essentially, Cubs relievers weren't good enough when it mattered most in 2019. As a result, Theo Epstein and Co. know that they must address the relief corps during the offseason, one where they’re open-minded about changing up the roster..

“It was a real interesting year in the pen,” Epstein said at his end-of-season press conference. “Our inability to pitch in high-leverage situations was a clear problem and was a contributing factor [to the Cubs missing the postseason].

“We had the third-worst record in all of baseball behind just the Tigers and Orioles in combined one and two run games. Our inability to pitch in high-leverage moments kind of haunted us throughout the year, and that’s something that I have to do a better job of finding options for.”

Signing closer Craig Kimbrel was supposed to alleviate some of the early-season bullpen woes, but he also struggled, finishing the season with a 6.53 ERA in 23 appearances. He'll be back in 2020, and Epstein believes a full spring training will go a long way for his closer.

Where does the rest of the bullpen stand heading into 2020, though?

Brandon Kintzler proved his value to the Cubs in 2019, but he’s set to hit free agency after the postseason. Steve Cishek and Pedro Strop have been two of the team's more reliable relievers in recent seasons, but they also will hit free agency.

The Cubs are unlikely to pick up their team options for Tony Barnette ($3 million) and Derek Holland ($6.5 million), while David Phelps’ $5 million option could be too costly. Phelps can start or pitch in relief, but so can Alec Mills and Adbert Alzolay.

Tyler Chatwood, Mills and Alzolay could find themselves competing for a Cubs starting rotation spot, but they’re also bullpen candidates. Dillon Maples and James Norwood will likely be given a look, as will Danny Hultzen. However, Hultzen (and Duane Underwood Jr.) are out of minor league options, meaning the Cubs could lose them via waivers if they don’t make the 2020 Opening Day roster.

Right now, only Kimbrel, Kyle Ryan, Rowan Wick and Brad Wieck are locks to start the 2020 season in the Cubs bullpen. And while Epstein said he needs to do a better job finding relief options, he deserves credit for unearthing the latter three.

After an impressive 2018 season with Triple-A Iowa, the Cubs signed Ryan to a big-league deal last November. And, despite not making the roster out of spring training, he played a big role with the Cubs in 2019.

Not only did Ryan finish the season with a 3.54 ERA (2.13 vs. lefties), but he made a team-high 73 appearances. His emergence made World Series hero Mike Montgomery – whom the Cubs traded to the Royals in July – expendable (though so did the latter’s struggles as a reliever).

The Cubs acquired Wick (Nov. 20, 2018) and Wieck (July 31, 2019) in separate deals with the Padres, and both players have benefitted from working with the Cubs’ “Pitch Lab.” 

Wick finished the season with a 2.43 ERA in 31 outings, striking out 35 batters in 33 1/3 innings. His fastball velocity averaged 95.8 mph in 2019, playing well off of his curveball, which had a 34.1 percent strikeout rate.

At 6-foot-9, Wieck is an intimidating presence on the mound (as a lefty, nonetheless). His fastball velocity averaged 93.7 mph in 2019, while the pitch lab helped him add more vertical break to his curveball:

(Baseball Savant)

In short, Ryan, Wick and Wieck came out of relatively nowhere, though each offer the Cubs something that the team needs. Ryan pitches well against left-handed hitters; Wick and Wieck have high velocity and generate swings and misses.

Ryan is arbitration eligible for the first time this winter, while Wick and Wieck are still under team control. Therefore, they won’t cost the Cubs a lot to retain, which means more money is available to add other bullpen pieces.

The Cubs have more needs than relief pitching, including center field, second base, a leadoff hitter and starting pitching depth. Therefore, they may need Epstein to work his magic again and unearth another low-key pitcher or two with high potential.

Epstein admitted that the solid ‘pen numbers mean less when paired with the high leverage woes, but he also expressed optimism for how the group performed, especially the under the radar guys.

“…I think it shows the talent level that’s there and [it’s] encouraging as well,” Epstein said, “because a lot of those contributions came from some under the radar pitchers, guys who were up through the organization or acquired in small deals, who I think made real important adjustments and showed that they can compete and potentially dominate at the big-league level.

“We’ve seen more of that. We need to keep unearthing pitchers who we acquire for the right reasons, we work well with and have the physical and mental wherewithal to go out and miss a lot of bats, which is something we didn’t do a lot of — although we did increasingly in the second half with this pitching group — and find more guys who can go out and pitch in high-leverage spots."

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Carlos Beltrán pulls out of Cubs' managerial search, seeks Mets' job, report says

Carlos Beltrán pulls out of Cubs' managerial search, seeks Mets' job, report says

Scratch one name off your list of candidates to replace Joe Maddon on the North Side.

Sunday, Carlos Beltrán said that although the Cubs are interested, he won't interview for the team's managerial opening. Beltrán, a nine-time All-Star who played 20 big league seasons, told Newsday's Anthony Rieber that he's only interested in the Mets' opening.

Beltrán's interest in the Mets' vacancy makes sense, as he played seven seasons with the team from 2005-11. The 42-year-old also currently works in the Yankees front office, so leaving for Queens would mean moving his office just across town.

Beltrán was one of the few reported candidates from outside the organization linked to the Cubs' opening. The group also includes Joe Girardi — who completed an eight-hour interview last Wednesday — and Astros bench coach Joe Espada. Houston is still in the postseason, though, meaning Espada has likely not been made available for interview at this point in time.

The Cubs have already interviewed several internal candidates, including bench coach Mark Loretta, first base coach Will Venable and front office assistant/former catcher David Ross. There is no timeline for when they will make their announcement, though.

"We're not gonna drag this out any longer than it needs to be, but we also want to be thorough," Cubs president Theo Epstein said at his end-of-season press conference. "It's difficult. The interview process, you want to make sure you don't end up with the candidate who interviews the best.

"You want to end up with the candidate who's gonna be the best manager and that can be nuanced, so we want to do the best we can with that process. We're certainly not gonna hesitate."

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