If you were Jason Hammel, you’d be mad too. He had thrown only 65 pitches and had allowed only a single tally while striking out five men and walking only one. But after just 5 2/3 innings, Joe Maddon gave his starter the hook. And this after Hammel had been lifted from his previous start with only 2 runs allowed through 4 innings and 76 pitches.
It did appear that Hammel was giving up some pretty loud contact on both occasions, but one might think Hammel would have built up enough credit to get the benefit of the doubt when it comes to getting out of those situations, particularly so early in games. The thing is, though, this isn’t about stroking a veteran’s ego or letting a guy figure it out on the fly.
Maddon is here to win ballgames, not to be everyone’s best friend, and he said as much when asked about the move.
“From my perspective, where I’m sitting, it’s not about being nice. It’s about trying to do the right thing at the right moment,” the Cubs skipper explained. “I thought it was the right thing to do.”
The game’s hero, Miguel Montero, agreed with his manager’s decision.
“Obviously, Hammel threw his ball good, maybe not quite as good as I’ve seen him in the past,” Montero admitted. “They were putting good swings on it. [Maddon] saw that they were hitting the ball good. That’s probably why he made that decision.”
If anyone knows good, it’s Montero.
I understand the value of strategery, but I wanted to look a little more closely to see whether there might be a method to the Maddon-ness. As such, I went in search of a little information that might provide an experiential basis for the last couple short outings by the man who has been very solid this season in the 3 spot in the Cubs rotation.
[ed. note: it is really hard to concentrate and write with Khal Schwarber and the rest of his Dothraki hoard pillaging baseballs]
A little while back, I had stumbled upon an article about how the Rays and Royals have chosen to utilize their starters, opting to limit the number of batters they face in an effort to maximize efficiency and effectiveness. In short, opposing hitters really start to figure a pitcher out as the lineup turns over, and that impact is greater the third time through the order.
In order to see what hitters are doing against him, I first wanted to look at Hammel’s pitch usage as a game wears on, so the chart below shows us what he likes to throw based on times through the order.
We can see here that the big righty leans more and more on the slider while eschewing the fastball, particularly after the 18th batter faced. Okay, now that we’ve established that, let’s take a look at opponents’ batting average against those pitches as they see them time and again (yes, I realize that I noted OPS earlier, but I’m keeping it even simpler for this exercise).
Huh, if I didn’t know better I’d say Hammel actually appears to be faring better against a team after that second time through. Interestingly enough, the slider appears to be a bit less effective but the four-seamer and sinker a more so. Still, we’re talking about a BAA of well under .200 on the slide-piece, so it’s not as though he’s been roughed up.
But then something struck me: Hammel had to leave his last start prior to the All-Star break after only 1 inning with a tight hamstring. Armed with that reminder, I chose to split the above results into pre- and post-injury splits.
The first thing we see from these charts is that the pre-hammy results pretty much mirror the full-season results. Much of this can be chalked up to the larger sample size (17 of 22 starts), but we start to see some deviation in the post-ASG chart. There is a pretty significant spike in BAA vs. Hammel’s slider after the second time through, which is even more concerning given his increasing use of that pitch later in games.
Batters had hit only .146 against the slider the third time through in first chart, but they have been hitting .400 since Hammel came back from the injury scare. That certainly seems to back up the assertions Maddon and Montero — and, really, just about all of us watching at home — had made regarding the pitcher’s performance and the contact he has been allowing.
It’s entirely possible that Hammel could have gotten through the 6th last night and that he could have come out for the 5th in the previous start. I wouldn’t want a pitcher on my team who didn’t have the fire to go out there and compete. But by lifting Hammel when he did, Maddon allowed potential backlash from that contact we see above to remain just that: potential. A manager trying to guide a team to a place it’s never been can’t afford to be reactive, to let staid baseball logic dictate his moves.
Jason Hammel might not be happy about it and fans might be baffled by it, but the decision to lift the starter early represents exactly the kind of forward-thinking, proactive approach the Cubs wanted when they hired Maddon. You can, however, go too far with stuff like this, and the veteran skipper knows it.
If Hammel is cruising in his next start and isn’t giving up that loud contact, I’ve no doubt he’ll get a chance to go deeper into the game. This isn’t a hard-and-fast strategy, but a decision that’s based equally on statistics and intuition. Maddon is also looking beyond just the game at hand, as he now must consider the health of his rotation for a possible playoff run. If he’s able to shave off a few innings here or there, they might well be needed in October.
So while it may have seemed unorthodox in the moment, Joe Maddon’s handling of Jason Hammel over the past couple starts actually makes a great deal of sense. This should be a really interesting trend to follow as the season moves on and the Cubs continue to fight for a playoff spot.