Jason Hammel: The Come Back Kid

After signing with the Cubs as a free agent in back-to-back years, pitcher Jason Hammel might feel a little like Phil Connors, the character Bill Murray played in the movie, “Groundhog Day.” That he’s reliving the same scenario over and over again.
The good news – for Hammel and the Cubs – is that history isn’t likely to repeat itself again next winter.
After signing Hammel to a one-year, $6 million contract following the 2013 season only to package him in a midseason trade along with pitcher Jeff Samardjiza to the Oakland A’s, in exchange for highly touted prospect Addison Russell, the Cubs this winter locked up Hammel to a two-year, $20 million deal to return to their starting rotation.
Hammel, 32, a nine-year veteran, had a short stint with the Cubs last year but calls the three months in Chicago “the best (three)” of his career.

There seems to be a correlation between happiness and success. In those three months with the Cubs, the right hander arguably pitched the best he’s ever pitched in his major league career, posting an 8-5 record and a stellar 2.98 ERA. In his Before Cubs (BC) career, he had a 49-59 record and 4.80 ERA. After last season’s mid-season trade, his numbers slipped to 2-6 with a 4.26 ERA.

The big question mark is which Jason Hammel will the Cubs get in 2015? The Cubs are obviously hoping that the good vibe Hammel had during his brief time in Chicago will carry over to this upcoming season and the next.
What then was the difference between the Cubs version of Hammel and the A’s version of Hammel in 2014? SB Nation, with an assist from Brooks Baseball, picked apart all the metrics and came away with the conclusion that Hammel lost command and the result was that he was grooving more pitches for home runs.

“Through June, Hammel’s grooved pitches percentage was 6.5%,” wrote SB Nation analyst Jake Dal Porto. “From July through the season’s end, it was 8%. Maybe a 1.5 percentage point difference doesn’t seem too dramatic, and on the surface, it’s really not. But merely one big swing can successfully sway a modest difference to a glaring difference. Sure, sometimes pitchers gets away with mistakes, and other times, hitters pound mistakes over fences. In Hammel’s case, he made a few more mistakes with the A’s and wasn’t blessed by the home run gods.”

Don’t forget that most of the innings Hammel pitched at Wrigley Field were in the early spring when the winds tend to whip in off of Lake Michigan and the Friendly Confines can be extra friendly to pitchers. Will he hold up as well when those winds start blowing out and turn those easy fly outs of April and May into home runs that are tossed back by the bleacher faithful?
The answer will come this season. If Hammel is able to get his groove back to the way it was last time he pitched for the Cubs, the North Siders have the makings of a formidable rotation with the addition of Hammel’s former A’s teammate Jon Lester and rising star Jake Arietta at the top and Hammel presumably fitting in in the middle.
Hammel, for one, is a believer. “I can’t predict the future, but it’s going to be a very dominant rotation,” Hammel recently said.

Not only will Hammel be back together with Lester and his Cubs teammates, he will also be reunited Joe Maddon, his manager with the Tampa Bay Rays from 2006 to 2008.
For Hammel, combing back was more about happiness than money. ‘‘I’m sure I left money on the table, but that doesn’t bother me,’’ Hammel said after resigning with the Cubs. ‘‘The intangibles of coming back to something that made me comfortable and happy, all around, family and baseball. It was a no-brainer.’’

Did you know?

Jason Hammel has a passion for LEGOs? On his blog, HammelTown, Hammel wrote on February 14, 2014: “One of the best things about the offseason is that I get to spend time with my family. My son and I share a love for LEGOs, so I was excited when Brickworkz offered to make a LEGO portrait capturing my one-hit shutout against the Braves. I thought this was such a cool and creative idea and jumped at the opportunity to have the mosaic made.”
Check out a video of the LEGO mosaic being built at http://jasonhammel.mlblogs.com/

Photo: Jason Hammel / Keith Allison / CC BY-SA 2.0 / Alteration: Cropped