Jason Hammel is one of the largest reasons for the Orioles hot start to the 2012 Season. The 6’6 right hander who was acquired in the offseason for former opening day starter and perennial fan favorite Jeremy Guthrie, has posted a 1.73 ERA in 26 innings while accumulating 3 wins.
As the attentive reader knows, statistics like ERA and wins are often not celebrated in By The Numbers. Instead, we focus on metrics that are predictive of what will happen in the future. However, even under the predictive metric microscope Jason Hammel shines. In short, Hammel is demonstrating several new skills making him a different pitcher than he has shown previously in his career. After the jump, we’ll look at Hammel’s new skills and discuss why we believe that he will continue go ham in 2012.
- Increased Fastball Velocity. One of the first pitcher statistics to stabilize (become reliable) is fastball velocity, and after 26 innings we can conclusively say that Hammel is throwing harder than he ever has in his career. Hammel’s career average fastball velocity is 92.6 mph. This year his average fastball velocity is 93.4 mph. All things being equal throwing a fastball with a mile per hour more velocity will yield more effective results and barring injury there is no reason to expect Hammel’s velocity to decrease from its current 93.4 mph average.
- Getting hitters to swing and miss. Fun fact: Past strikeout rate for a pitcher is not best statistic to predict future strikeout rate. Past swinging strike rate is better. For a given pitcher, swinging strike rate (SwStr%) reflects the percentage of total pitches that a batter swings and misses on. Like fastball velocity, SwStr% is a metric that stabilizes extremely quickly. So far in 2012, along with his increased velocity (and perhaps because of it), Hammel is inducing more swings and misses than he ever has before. Hammel is getting batters to swing and miss on 10.3% of his pitches compared to only 6.5% last year and a career rate of 7.8%. This is significant, getting batters to swing and miss is the single best skill a pitcher can possess and Hammel is doing it at an above average rate in the toughest division in baseball.
- Inducing ground balls with his two-seam fastball. Besides striking a batter out, inducing a ground ball is the next best outcome. Hammel’s ability to get ground balls has always been slightly better than league average (career rate of 45.5%), but he now ranks fourth among starting pitchers in the Majors in ground ball rate (61.8%). Furthermore, it seems like there is a good reason for the increase: he has increased his two-seam fastball usage from 13.1% to 40.5%, while his four-seamer is now only being thrown 20.9%. Even more astoundingly, he has induced a 73% ground ball rate on that two-seamer against righties. Though it is difficult to bank on Hammel leading the majors in GB% for the season he does seem likely to post a ~55% ground ball rate the rest of the way.
Hammel will not finish the year with an ERA under 3.00 and he may not even win more games than he losses, but he will easily be the Orioles best starting pitcher in 2012. His underlying skills show that he is a very different pitcher than what he displayed in 2009-2011 in Colorado. If the Orioles realized that when they acquired him then kudos to Dan Duquette and the rest of the front office. If they didn’t and simply got lucky, good they deserve a break. Either way, the trade has resulted in the acquisition of an above average MLB starting pitcher for a guy (Guthrie) who recently landed on the DL because he fell off his bicycle.