It will come as no surprise to Cubs fans that one of the topics that kept me up at night in 2015 was Jason Hammel‘s decline in the second half of the season. I’m a much more upbeat fan than most, but even I was losing my patience in October. Hammel was just not pitching to a level that could get things done, and though I realize Joe Maddon has his reasons for everything he does, I admit I was ready to see Travis Wood, or Trevor Cahill, or Dan Haren take the mound last fall. The frustrating thing about it was, in the early half of the season, Hammel was deadly, and I couldn’t help but think that guy was still in there.
I also have other theories about pitchers, and I’m going to trot a couple out in this article because it appears my theories are shared by others who actually have influence, and it also appears they will be tested in this spring, and in 2016.
Of all the players on a team, my fascination has always been with the pitchers. When I played as a kid, I pitched – I was tall and thin and could hit the strike zone fairly often. I never managed to make anything of it, but my grandfather, who gave me my love of baseball, pitched in the minor leagues in the early 1900s – he even had an invitation to a big-league spring training but was unable to go because he was in the Army. He taught me how to throw a curve, which he would not let me do much as a boy (said it was bad for my arm) and taught me how to throw a knuckleball (which he was much better at throwing and catching than I was). If you have never tried to catch a knuckle ball, I recommend you count that as a blessing.
Anyway, why am I telling you this? Because I study pitchers. The most successful pitchers have several things in common that I want to put on the table, and then I’m going to apply them to the subject at hand.
The first thing is attitude. The pitchers who scare hitters never bat an eye. They don’t look frustrated. If a home run flies over their heads, they might get angry, but in general even that doesn’t show. They approach every single pitch with intensity and focus, and they don’t let the next pitch, or the last pitch, get stuck in their head. Some will scoff, but I believe you can see in a pitcher’s face when that edge has faltered. Sometimes it’s just in a game, sometimes it’s during a slump, and sometimes it never comes back. I’ve even seen a sag in the shoulders that made my heart sink, because I just knew it was going to get ugly.
The second thing is conditioning. A lot of pitching at the highest levels is natural talent. You can teach a good player to pitch, but you can’t teach him to be a great pitcher. You are, or you are not. That is the intangible part that you can’t do much about. The down-to-earth business of pitching, though, is a function of athletics and natural talent. The pitchers at the very top of the game (with a few notable exceptions – I’m looking at you Bartolo Colon) are lean, fit, and continually focused on all-around conditioning. Jake Arrieta is a prime example of this, and last year, I wanted to suggest that Hammel work out with him – try to internalize a system of his own that mirrors Arrieta’s intensity and focus. Of course, I would have to get the opportunity to talk with Jason to do that, and you know – that never happened.
The third and last thing that I have noted in the best pitchers is that they do their preparation before the game, study after the game, but during the game, they don’t overthink it. Once they, and presumably their catcher, have worked out how they are approaching a game, they follow that plan. If the plan is to pound the lower inside corner, and it’s not working right off, they don’t start trying to shift things all over the place, but instead bear down and make the plan work.
After reading the lengthy report on Hammel’s reporting to Spring Training, and the preparations he’s made, I am pleased to say that at least two of the above issues have been addressed. There is, of course, no way to know how the season will play out until it’s here, but I have a sudden renewal of confidence in JayHam (JayHay is already taken).
First, he didn’t go into the offseason just hoping to bounce back – he took direct aim at fixing whatever was broken. He worked with pitching guru Tom House, who has had amazing success over a very long period of time coaching pitchers, teaching young pitchers, and studying the mechanics and psychology of the mound.
Hammel worked on how he sees himself, and his pitching. You could see in 2015 how frustrated he was with his later performances. The key, according to House, was to simply quit beating himself up, focus on his game – and maintain that focus. I think I said that too, but I bet Tom said it better.
Hammel also worked on a small shift in his mechanics, a shoulder rotation that had apparently been suggested by other coaches in the past, but that had never felt right. This winter, combined with the rest of his new regimen, it worked. House believes that the best in Hammel has not even surfaced yet, that he’s been pitching well without reaching his potential. I hope that Hammel feels that now as well. One pitch at a time. One batter at a time. One game at a time. Focused. It’s how Maddon talks about managing, and it’s the only way through a lineup from the mound.
Along with the mental tune-up and the mechanics adjustment, Hammel has been hitting the conditioning hard. He dropped twenty pounds, changed to a healthier diet, and worked with a trainer specifically on the core conditioning that affects pitching: improving his strength and endurance. I believe that in any sport, this is the key to longevity. Injuries happen, but they happen a lot less frequently to those in peak physical condition.
I am going to throw out one final suggestion to Hammel, from the deepest recess of my Cubs-loving heart. Next time you see a grounder dribbling along that third base line, ignore it. Kris Bryant will get it. Do not, I repeat, do not dive for it. That said, it appears that the slump in 2015 may have led to the epiphanies that could bring us Jason Hammel 2.0 – stronger, improved control, and ready to win.