Suffice to say that these days, Orioles starter Jason Hammel is making room for himself. Having shut down the Braves with a one-hit shutout Saturday, Hammel is redefining his career. The win was his first shutout, the first nine-inning complete game of his career. He posted the highest Game Score (91) of any turn in his career.
Hammel has had to come a long way to get to this point, though, because it wasn’t so long ago that he was just an extra guy, a fringe guy, a fifth man. The sort of pitcher who has to hear that he’ll have to pack his bags because there’s no room for him. That’s despite the big, 6-foot-6 frame scouts love in a right-hander and a fastball that sits around 93 mph. But Hammel’s mixed fortune was that he began his pro career in the Rays' system, where if you weren’t a blue-chipper with Cy Young potential, you were trade bait.
That effectively was Hammel’s lot. As a pitching prospect in the Rays' system, being pretty good was nice, but it wasn’t enough, certainly not with as many top pitching prospects as that system has been cranking out. When Hammel debuted for Tampa Bay in 2006, he was in the same cadre as James Shields and Edwin Jackson, not to mention Andy Sonnanstine and J.P. Howell, all useful guys to stock a rotation behind an already-there Scott Kazmir. Then the Rays brought in Matt Garza in 2008, with Jeff Niemann and David Price coming into the picture. Now there really wasn’t much space for “pretty good” in Tampa Bay. Even after Jackson was dealt to the Tigers (for Matt Joyce), Hammel just wasn’t going to stand out in this crowd, not even at 6-6. He didn’t rate among the Rays’ front five. Or six. Or seven.
So, as Opening Day 2009 approached, the Rays decided they needed Hammel’s spot on the roster more than they needed Hammel’s brand of pretty good. They gave him the most bittersweet of liberating opportunities to start every fifth day in the big leagues by sending him to Denver and baseball at altitude, perhaps with the standard expectation that the pitcher-munching environment would chew him up as it had so many other pretty good pitchers, going all the way back to David Nied. Who survives that long enough to make the team dealing a pretty good pitcher look bad?
But Hammel endured and survived and stayed pretty good, giving Colorado three years of useful mediocrity (including a definitively average 100 ERA+ and a 4.63 ERA). Perhaps that sort of damnable consistency can bore even the most pitching-hungry team, because the Rockies decided they needed more than pretty good this winter, flipping him (with the reliably disappointing Matt Lindstrom) to the Orioles for rotation workhorse Jeremy Guthrie.
Credit Rockies general manager Dan O’Dowd with this much: A front-of-the-rotation starter was getting moved in this deal. Unfortunately, his Rockies weren’t the team getting one -- the Orioles were, and Saturday night’s start merely represented the latest in kind as Hammel turns in a season that redefines his upside and his value.
Consider what he’s throwing and the results he’s generating. Despite moving into the vaunted American League East, he’s striking out a career-high 22.7 percent of batters, a jump of roughly 40 percent over his career rate. He’s generating 40 percent more ground balls, and his ratio of ground ball outs to flies has moved to a career-high 1.53. What’s he doing differently? Ditching his changeup, for starters.
If you look at PitchF/X sites that try to break down fastball types into four-seam, two-seam and cut fastballs, you’ll find Hammel seems to be throwing fewer four-seam fastballs, which might help explain the jump in ground ball outs. More simply, he’s becoming a quality sinker-slider guy, and that reliance on a classic power assortment is paying off with a career-high clip for swinging strikes, 18 percent, the first truly above-average mark of his career.
As a result of all this good stuff, unlike so many first-half performers providing surprises, Hammel isn’t being tagged with the dreaded "regression" label. His FIP isn’t much different from his actual ERA, so analysts might have to accommodate themselves to the notion that Jason Hammel isn’t just pretty good anymore -- perhaps he’s flat-out good.
The timing of this turnaround couldn’t come at a better time for Hammel; he’s a viable All-Star starter on a contending team. Among the Orioles, only center fielder Adam Jones (2.6) and shortstop J.J. Hardy (2.1) had higher wins-above-replacement values than the 1.8 Hammel was sporting before his shutout. He might be a long-shot selection, but on a personal level, it would be icing on the offseason cake he’s already baking as he heads toward a last spin with arbitration and a fine shot at leveraging that into multiyear money.
In the meantime, he is giving the Orioles a better season than Guthrie ever had and seems poised to deliver more of the same. At 29, he’s proved to be durable, having never suffered a major arm injury as a pro -- his one career trip to the disabled list was caused by a strained groin in 2010.
Put all of that in one package, and you can still ask whether it adds up to an All-Star, a 10-figures-per-year pitcher or a reliable No. 2 in anybody’s rotation. But the way Hammel is going, we won’t have to ask much longer, because he’s providing the answer one turn after another. How good is that? Pretty good.
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Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.