When healthy, Jason Hammel was the Orioles’ clear ace in 2012. The 29-year-old added a power sinker to his classic fastball-curveball-slider arsenal. The addition became a career year — Hammel recorded a 3.43 ERA and a 3.29 FIP. The Orioles’ ability to withstand getting just 20 starts from Hammel ranks among the greatest mysteries in a mystery filled season.
To take a look at just how Hammel used his new repertoire to improve last season, let’s take a look at his magnum opus: a complete game, one-hit shutout against the Braves on June 16th.
Hammel’s full line: nine innings, one hit, zero runs, eight strikeouts and two walks. He needed just 103 pitches to retire the 27 Braves and he induced 17 swinging strikes in the process. The resulting 91 game score tied four three others for the season’s 14th best. It was a dominant outing, with the few weak points — wildness in the second and seventh innings — swift and fleeting.
The sinker was on full display. Hammel usually featured a 1-to-1 ratio between the four-seam fastball and the sinker; against the Braves he tossed 15 more sinkers (37) than four-seamers. The four-seamer was largely a get-me-over pitch, appearing with zero strikes 12 times — including six times on the first pitch. The sinker, on the other hand, was spread across all but one count (2-1, just encountered twice). The pitch only drew one whiff, but it still produced results: 10 not-in-play strikes and seven batted ball outs.
The power on Hammel’s slider was especially notable in this start. Hammel was facing a powerful lineup against Atlanta — the Braves entered the day third in runs score in the American League. Hammel worked the hitters to the outside corner, particularly with his fastball combo:
Jason Heyward and Brian McCann in particular were fed sinkers around the plate’s outside corner. Both have the ability to drive the outside pitch with power, but Hammel’s own power was able to keep the ball in the yard. Both Heyward and McCann attempted at various points to muscle the ball out to left field, but in neither case were they able to get enough extension to put the ball over the fence — Hammel’s sinker had too much velocity and arrived before the hitters could get the power behind the ball.
The power on the sinker is what eventually forced Heyward to change his approach, leading to the first and only Braves hit. Heyward lined a middle-out sinker into left field for a single, but you can see Heyward did not exert the explosive power his swing is capable of:
It was a great piece of hitting by Heyward — he used his quick wrists to get the barrel to the ball — but it was all a wrist flick and he didn’t get much power from the hips, because the swing was a defensive, two-strike poke. When Hammel has a hitter as good as Heyward in this position, he’s going to win most battles — and most hitters and aren’t as good as Jason Heyward. Chances are Hammel couldn’t do it regularly without the extra tick or so on the radar gun — he finished with a 93.6 MPH average fastball in 2012 against 92.7 MPH for his career.
Hammel destroyed left-handed batters in 2012. Southpaws managed just a .202/.278/.307 (.262 wOBA) against him; righties hit him for a .264/.328/.364 (.306 wOBA) line. His fastball went from a home run machine — six allowed on 12.2 percent per fly ball — to an out machine — one home run allowed and a .265 slugging percentage allowed on contact.
The sinker appears to be the catalyst. With the new wrinkle of different action at nearly the same speed, hitters whiff on the fastball nearly twice as often, foul it off more often, and hit fewer line drives against it. In every meaningful sense, the contact quality is lower — more ground balls, fewer line drives, fewer home runs per fly ball, and a lower percentage of contact in play. With the hitter forced to adjust to the proper fastball movement (or just guess), they either miss (or ******) or are forced to swing defensively like Jason Heyward in the example above.
Hammel will be one of the many players on watch as potential one-year wonders in 2013 while the Orioles as a whole hope to avoid the same fate. If Hammel can maintain the control and power he showed with his sinker both on June 16th and throughout the season, he’ll have a chance to replicate his top-of-the-rotation performance in 2013.
PITCHf/x data from Brooks Baseball