What Cole Hamels' 2014 Debut Tells Us About His Season Outlook

Mike Rosenbaum@GoldenSombreroMLB Prospects Lead WriterApril 24, 2014

Philadelphia Phillies starting pitcher Cole Hamels throws against the Los Angeles Dodgers during the first inning of a baseball game on Wednesday, April 23, 2014, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)
Jae C. Hong

Cole Hamels isn’t known for turning in strong season debuts. Since 2009, the Phillies left-hander is 1-4 with a 9.55 ERA in 21.2 innings.

On Wednesday night, Hamels took the mound for the first time this season after spending over two months on the shelf with tendonitis in his left shoulder, and he did so with a chance to ensure a series win against the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Earlier in the week, manager Ryne Sandberg mentioned on the WIP Morning Show that Hamels would have no restrictions in his season debut (via CBS Philly):

We’ll just watch him pitch and take a look at him and see how he does, but it’s great to have him in the rotation with the other guys we have. He’s going on Wednesday, so that’s a little strategy there, rather than pitching him on Tuesday breaking up him and [Cliff] Lee and having [A.J.] Burnett in the middle here for the Dodgers series. [I'm] anxious to watch him pitch and to see him and then go from there, but no restrictions. He threw all of his pitches in his last three outings.

While Hamels left the game after six innings with the Phillies trailing, 2-1, he did end his string of lackluster debuts by allowing two earned runs on four hits with five strikeouts and one walk. More importantly, the 30-year-old southpaw proved that he’s healthy and ready for another strong campaign.

Prior to facing Hamels, the Dodgers ranked 23rd in batting average (.248 ) and 28th in woBA (.300) this season against left-handed pitching.

In general, the Dodgers offense had been mired in a week-long slump headed into Wednesday, collectively batting .190/.249/.300 with 13 extra-base hits and 57 strikeouts in their last six games.

Basically, the Dodgers’ recent struggles made them the perfect opponent to help Hamels finally put an end to his half-decade of porous season debuts.

After setting down the Dodgers in order in the first inning, Hamels surrendered a leadoff double to Matt Kemp in the second and then a single to Scott Van Slyke to put runners on the corners with no outs. The next batter, Juan Uribe, plated Kemp on a sacrifice fly to give the Dodgers an early 1-0 lead, but Hamels was able to avoid a potentially disastrous inning by inducing a flyout from Justin Turner and then picking off Van Slyke at first with a span of five pitches.

Hamels found his groove in the third and turned in another one-two-three inning, capping the frame by striking out Yasiel Puig for the second time in as many at-bats. The left-hander retired five straight batters before allowing a two-out double to Kemp, his second of the game, in the fourth inning.

Hamels opened the fifth inning with strikeouts of Uribe and Turner, though neither batter went down without a fight; he struck out Uribe swinging on six pitches and then retired Turner looking on eight pitches. After that, however, Hamels began to show slight signs of fatigue, as he surrendered a two-out single to catcher Drew Butera and five-pitch walk to Zack Greinke to set up Puig for an RBI single to left field.

Hanley Ramirez doubled down the left field line to lead off the sixth inning, but Hamels ultimately left him on base by retiring the next three batters on seven pitches.

In terms of stuff, Hamels featured his entire arsenal Wednesday night, throwing a fastball, cutter, changeup and curveball. Specifically, 57 of the left-hander’s 86 pitches in the game were either fastballs or cutters, and he demonstrated his usual advanced feel for working it to both sides of the plate. Hamels' command of his heater, which sat 91 to 94 mph, in the outing wasn’t particularly sharp, as he frequently missed off the inside corner against right-handed batters. However, he still was able to establish the pitch early in the game by confidently attacking hitters inside, which in turn made his middle-away secondary offerings even more effective.

Apr 23, 2014; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Philadelphia Phillies starting pitcher Cole Hamels (35) in the second inning of the game against the Los Angeles Dodgers at Dodger Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Hamels' changeup was as good as it could have been for his first start of the season, as the left-hander induced seven whiffs—including two strikeouts—while throwing it 20 times over six innings. The pitch featured excellent speed differential (compared to his fastball), registering anywhere from 78 to 84 mph in the outing, and, like always, he sold it incredibly well with his fastball-like arm speed and follow-through.

Hamels also threw eight curveballs in the game—five coming during the fifth and sixth innings with his fastball-changeup command waning—and showed a feel for generating tight rotation and sharp, downer break. But even though he induced a pair of whiffs with the pitch, he lacked control overall and buried many of them in the dirt.

The only times Hamels struggled was when pitching with men on base, as two of the four hits he allowed in the outing, as well as his lone walk (which he issued to Greinke), came when working from the stretch. However, considering opposing hitters own a career triple-slash line of .242/.296/.388 against Hamels with men on base, it’s reasonable to assume the issue will resolve itself as he continues to build arm strength and logs innings.

Overall Grade: B+

After making three rehab starts at High-A Clearwater prior to his season debut, Hamels looked as though he was in midseason form facing the Dodgers on Wednesday. The left-hander was poised on the mound and utilized his entire arsenal to execute a specific game plan against a lineup comprised of eight right-handed batters.

Assuming Hamels’ shoulder injury is behind him, then all signs point to the 30-year-old putting up numbers in line with his career averages—meaning 200-plus innings, an ERA and FIP somewhere in the vicinity of 3.0 to 3.5, and strikeout and walk rates of roughly 23.0 and 6.0 percent, respectively.

Unless the Phillies adjust their starting rotation, Hamels is scheduled to make his second start of the season at home next Tuesday against the New York Mets.


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