Cole Hamels is a Model of Consistency

Like Stephen Strasburg, who we profiled yesterday, Cole Hamels possesses borderline elite talent but posted a disappointing return of about $8 in 2013. Hamels was the sixth overall pitcher selected in snake drafts last year with an average auction bid of $24.

Hamels was unfortunate enough to deliver a strong season for a poor team, which led to a 8-14 record. Most of his value came from the 220 innings and 202 strikeouts he recorded. His 3.60 ERA and 1.15 WHIP were fairly pedestrian for 12 team leagues. Despite a tepid return last season, Hamels has been one of the most predictably reliable pitchers in baseball and shows no signs of slowing down.

Hamels has thrown 1,464.1 innings over the past seven seasons, an average of 209 innings per season. He’s been especially good over the past four seasons which correlates with a slight increase in his velocity and improvements with his cut fastball. He’s settled in as a starter who can provide innings in bulk while striking out four times more batters than he walks.

Last season, a few weeks prior to spring training, it was revealed that Hamels was dealing with shoulder soreness. He appears to have recovered from that issue by the time the regular season rolled around since he recorded 220 innings pitched and posted typical rates all around.

Still, the past history of shoulder soreness combined with previous surgery for bone chips in his elbow, a hernia, and a “degenerative disc disease” (possibly spondylosis based on the scant description that was made public) is cause for concern. His history of regular season durability means that his arm has a lot of mileage on it and 2014 will be his age 30 season. Pitchers can fall apart with little or no warning, and with Hamels there are several red flags.

As most fantasy owners know, Hamels’ bread and butter is an excellent change-up that rates as one of the best in the league. He uses the change-up about a quarter of the time and is relatively unpredictable with it. He does throw the pitch much more often against right-handed hitters, which makes sense. He also favors it when the batter is ahead in the count and when he’s going for a strike out. This is also understandable since the pitch is his most likely to draw a whiff (44% of swings) and batters can make easy outs when they miss-identify a 2-0 change-up as a fastball. Generally speaking, the pitch has been excellent for him when he’s behind in the count except for 2-1 counts, but that is probably statistical noise.

He strikes out between eight and nine batters per nine (career 8.51 K/9) and walks about two batters per nine (career 2.22 BB/9). He is generally slightly better than league average at generating ground balls and usually posts league average rates in BABIP and HR/FB. Steamer and Oliver, two projection systems available on FanGraphs, project a FIP of about 3.37 in 2014. Since he generally posts league average peripherals, that’s also a good estimate of his ERA.

His value in 2014 will depend upon two factors: continued health and run support. Unlike with Strasburg, the Phillies offense projects to be below average next season, so while we can expect an improvement on Hamels’ 8-14 record, it might not be enough to substantially change his value. Similarly a couple dollars of improvement in ERA and WHIP leave us with a player who might be worth as much as $15.

As I argued in the Strasburg article, a predictable, near-elite pitcher who can stifle opponents may be worth a couple extra dollars above his actual value. If you believe that durability is a skill and that age 30 is not the year when age overrides that skill, then you can be less aggressive with factoring in risk. Personally, I believe his injury history offsets his durability, and his innings count actually has me slightly concerned.

I expect Hamels to draft for around $20 next season. If I’m right, he’ll cost about $5  to $10 over his expected value. His secondary characteristics like health and supporting cast can be argued to be worth anywhere between about negative $3 to positive $5. That means you’ll probably have to pay a slight premium to win him in the auction, but that premium is less than you’ll see with a lot of other pitchers.

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The Phillies ranked near the bottom last year in almost all team defensive metrics, and they don’t figure to be substantially improved from a W/L or defensive standpoint in 2014. With all the trade speculation swirling around Hamels, he could see a nice uptick in value if a trade does materialize as his win total and ERA/WHIP are almost certainly to be positively impacted by any team that would acquire him.