The Bad Luck Club
Stats don't tell the whole story for Cole Hamels, Stephen Strasburg and others
When Cole Hamels signed a six-year, $144 million contract extension with the Philadelphia Phillies last July, he envisioned pitching alongside Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee on contending teams for years to come in a "Three Amigos" state of nirvana.
The first full year of that arrangement hasn't gone very smoothly. Halladay has been out since April with a shoulder injury, and the Phillies' mediocre performance this season has spawned the inevitable trade rumors and speculation involving Lee.
Worst of all, Hamels can't seem to take the mound without something going awry. When it's late June and the Philadelphia beat writers are already scrambling to find the cell numbers for Brian Kingman and Mike Maroth for a historical perspective on how it feels to be a 20-game loser, that's not a good sign.
Hamels, a three-time All-Star, is 2-11 with a 4.58 ERA through 17 starts. He has already tied his single-season high for losses and recently became the first Phillies pitcher to lose 11 games before the end of June since Claude Passeau and Wayne LaMaster achieved that notable distinction in 1937. If Delmon Young hadn't bailed him out with a game-tying homer Wednesday in San Diego, Hamels would have joined Kid Gleason (1891), Charlie Ferguson (1884) and John Coleman (1883) as the only Phils pitchers to drop 12 games by June's end.
Hamels has suddenly morphed into the anti-Jack Morris this season, pitching just poorly enough to emerge with a no-decision or a defeat no matter how events unfold. And just when it appeared he was ready to steady himself and gain some positive momentum, he has blown early leads against the New York Mets and San Diego Padres in his past two starts.
But won-loss records can be deceptive, obviously, and Hamels' 2-11 mark has been caused largely by circumstances beyond his control. He ranks 87th among 98 MLB starters in run support and has been tagged with losses or no-decisions in games decided by scores of 2-0 (twice), 2-1 (twice) and 3-2. Amazingly, during one exasperating stretch from April 7 through May 31, Hamels went 62 innings without pitching with a lead.
Hamels spent much of last season watching Lee go 6-9 with a 3.16 ERA because of poor run support and surely thinking "poor Cliff." Suddenly, he has to wrap his mind around the notion that he's the guy who can't catch a break. He has learned to compartmentalize out of self-preservation.
"You have to stay within yourself and try to make matters simple and forget about everything else," Hamels said. "I know I'm [2-11], but I don't feel that way. You have to mentally change the scenarios around and create a sort of blurred vision and make it all foggy. As long as you're doing everything between starts, and you feel healthy and know you're going out there with a good game plan, you can go to bed at the end of the day and wake up the next day knowing you're at your best to compete.
"It teaches you a lot about the game. You just have to stay prepared and stay sharp mentally and physically because it can break you at times. That's what the game is. It's not supposed to be easy, but you try to realize you can't control everything. You just try to be the best you can. Otherwise, you'll beat yourself into the ground and create more problems."
If Hamels needs a pick-me-up, he might want to take a look at some of the company he's keeping statistically:
• According to Baseball-Reference.com, Hamels has lost a major-leagues-high six games this year in quality starts.
A glance at the peripherals doesn't provide explanations for the losses. Hamels' fastball velocity of 91.9 mph and his rate of first-pitch strikes and swings-and-misses are all in line with his career norms. His .296 batting average on balls in play is high but not off the charts.
Two items worth noting: (1) Hamels' 2.8 walks per nine innings is his highest ratio since his rookie year in 2006 and (2) he has been less inclined to use his backdoor cutter against right-handed batters after giving up several homers on the pitch earlier this season. The FanGraphs breakdown shows that Hamels is throwing the cutter about 9 percent of the time compared with 18 percent last season.
However, Hamels struck out Padres catcher Yasmani Grandal looking at a cutter Wednesday night, and he's developing enough of a feel for the pitch that he hopes to reintroduce it to his arsenal with more consistency. Beyond that, he has a personal mandate to keep plugging away and salvage the season.
"Trust me -- when you're winning games, they're scoring 6-7 runs for you and you're 10-0 with a 3.00 ERA, you're on top of the world," Hamels said. "You don't have to think much; you just go out and react. When players have to get through the grind, that's when you can tell they're good. That's what I'm trying to do."
Hamels isn't the only prominent big leaguer who has performed better this season than some of the more conventional numbers suggest. Here are a few more members of MLB's 2013 Bad Luck Club:
James Shields (3-6, 2.99 ERA)
Shields has given the Kansas City Royals everything they expected when they acquired him from the Tampa Bay Rays in that big December trade. He ranks among the top 10 in the American League in ERA, innings (117) and strikeouts (104). He has given the Royals leadership, helped raise the performance level of the entire rotation with his work ethic and professionalism, and logged at least six innings and 100 pitches in 16 of his 17 starts.
But Shields has earned just one win since May 1, thanks to some shaky bullpen work and horrendous offensive support. His six losses have come by scores of 1-0, 3-2 (twice), 2-1, 3-1 and 6-3. Hence, his subtle transition from "Big Game James" to "Hard-Luck Loser James."
Shields and fellow Royals starters Ervin Santana and Wade Davis could all use a break. The Royals have scored a total of 20 runs in Santana's 10 losses and no-decisions, and Davis sports a major-leagues-high .381 BABIP. Davis' fortunes have shifted of late, and he's been on a roll with a 1-0 record and a 2.19 ERA in June.
Stephen Strasburg (4-6, 2.41 ERA)
Strasburg's ratio of 8.68 strikeouts per nine innings is low by his standards, but it jibes with his professed desire to pitch more economically and go deeper into games this season. He has reduced his pitches per inning from 16.4 to 15.8 and has lasted at least seven innings in six of his eight starts since the beginning of May.
But Strasburg has paid the price for pitching in front of an offense that ranks 29th in the majors in runs scored. He also has grown accustomed to lots of scrutiny as the result of his No. 1 overall draft status, his medical history and the Ming vase treatment he received from the Washington Nationals during Operation Shutdown in 2012.
Strasburg created a bit of a stir when he shook his arm awkwardly in a nationally televised game in late April. Was he injured? Two months later, his average fastball velocity of 95.4 mph ranks second to only the Mets' Matt Harvey among MLB starters. Apparently, he's fine.
"He's so under the microscope," said Nationals catcher Kurt Suzuki. "He had a 2.90 ERA earlier this season, and people were saying, 'He's not the same.' Sometimes it's not fair to him, and he feels like he can't do anything right. And it's pretty unfortunate. He does a lot of things right. When you're under the microscope like that, and everybody is always looking for flaws instead of looking for the good stuff, it sucks."
Anthony Rizzo (.253, 12 home runs)
As Gordon Wittenmyer of the Chicago Sun-Times points out, Rizzo just completed his first calendar year as a Cub with the following numbers: a .270 batting average, 27 home runs, 92 RBIs, a .341 on-base percentage and an .813 OPS.
In light of how Ike Davis, Eric Hosmer, Justin Smoak and some of Rizzo's young first-base contemporaries have struggled to hit major league pitching consistently, the Cubs will gladly take those numbers in return for their recent seven-year, $41 million investment in Rizzo.
GIMME A BREAK!
Lowest batting average on balls in play among hitters who rank among baseball's top 25 in well-hit average:
|Sources: Inside Edge and ESPN Stats & Information|
Rizzo has hung tough against left-handed pitching (with an .811 OPS) and been patient enough to work counts and take his share of walks, even when the hits aren't falling. But the numbers also show that he has hit more than his share of "at 'em" balls.
The Inside Edge service keeps track of hard-hit balls, and Rizzo ranks eighth in baseball in that category. But he's a mere 118th in the majors with a .281 BABIP. If he keeps swinging, his luck is bound to take a turn for the better soon.
Victor Martinez (.225 BA, .615 OPS)
Detroit Tigers fans, manager Jim Leyland and the team's front office were ready to be patient with Martinez this year given all he's been through. He turned 34 in December and had a lot of rust to shake off after missing the entire 2012 season with a knee injury.
The raw numbers seem to indicate that Martinez's bat is slowing down, but his biggest issue is bad ball placement: His BABIP is a feeble .233 even though he ranks 14th in the majors in percentage of hard-hit balls.
Martinez has 12 walks and only eight strikeouts in June, so the evidence suggests that he's staying within himself and sticking with his time-tested, all-fields approach to hitting. It has worked since he broke into the majors with Cleveland in 2002.
"He came out swinging right out of the gate, but it's been absolutely frustrating -- for him and for me," said Tigers hitting coach Lloyd McClendon. "I call it 'buzzard luck.' We have to get him one of those Jobu dolls to stick in his locker, like they did in 'Major League.'"
"The one thing that helps him most is having a positive track record. As unlucky as he's been, he has something to lean on and rely on. He knows he's a good hitter, and this is just a fluke. It's not the norm, and he'll come out of it."
For Martinez and his fellow laggards, patience and self-confidence are prerequisites for staying power in the big leagues. There's nothing like an extended streak of misfortune to distinguish baseball's quitters from the grinders. Nobody ever said the game was fair.