The Texas Rangers are in first place, and they’ve got Cole Hamels going on Sunday. That’s been good news since his first turn for Texas on Aug. 1, when a deadline deal with the Phillies brought Hamels back to relevance and pennant races. He was part of the Rangers’ epic comeback to win the AL West last year, and in Hamels’ brief career as a Ranger, Texas has won 15 of his 16 turns and has won 14 straight. He’s spun a quality start in 11 of those games while earning a 10-1 record.
That might all sound like a nice bit of redemption: Good pitcher goes to good team, good things happen. But there’s more than that going on here. Hamels is 32 years old with 10 big-league seasons under his belt. And whatever success he’s had before, he’s simultaneously dealing with two big challenges: He’s older. And he’s pitching in the American League. And those two things together have forced him to try to be a different kind of pitcher.
Look at what he’s throwing this season. Hamels is mixing things up. He’s cutting his fastball more than half again as often as he did over the previous decade. He’s throwing more curveballs. Per Brooks Baseball, his average fastball velocity is down a tick, falling from 93.6 to 92.6 mph. He's changing speeds and throwing more two-seam fastballs. And all of it -- all of it -- is a matter of addressing those two challenges: age, and the American League.
“The league is a little more power-driven,” Hamels said while the Rangers were in Chicago last weekend. “So you’re not really necessarily going to be able to sneak four-seam fastballs by as much. Especially when you’re not able to get the zip or locate.”
Acknowledging with a laugh that even after 10 seasons he’s still learning, Hamels noted, “I think the big thing I learned last year was learning to use both sides of the plate, not only with cutters but with sinkers and changeups, curveballs. I think it was a little bit more fun, just learning that I could do it. I never really had to try to do it [in the NL].”
As a result, Hamels is in the process of becoming a more well-rounded pitcher, with a broader assortment to help him pitch to deeper lineups, especially that third or fourth time through a batting order, without the benefit of facing the bottom half of National League lineups.
“It is a different challenge,” Hamels said. “When you’re going up against a No. 8, No. 9 hitter in the National League, you can just pump fastballs all day. They’re most likely not going to hit the fastball out of the yard, so you get those fastball quick outs. In the American League, in those same spots? You’re facing a guy who’s going to hit 10-15 home runs, so you still have to be careful. So even if you want to challenge them, you’re not going to get away with as much.
“So now, I’m trying to develop that trust in these pitches,” Hamels said. “In spring training, that’s really what I was focusing on, was really trying to throw all five of my pitches to each side of the plate. Before, during spring with the Phillies, I would just slowly break out a pitch, and then during the season I’d say, ‘shoot, I need to throw these other pitches.’ I think that’s what it is, just knowing that I’ve gotta really be ready.”
“When he has a good feel, he has four legit pitches, five if you count both fastballs, and his cutter, he can slide it and cut it,” observed Rangers pitching coach Doug Brocail. “You look at the big sliders in, the big cutters in, they play like a slider with depth. When he gets to a 3-2 count, and he throws the true little cutter, six inches of cut, two inches of depth, punches out [George] Springer. You can count that as two more [pitches], that’s seven, or six.”
If Brocail’s having trouble keeping count of how many different things Hamels is trying to do on the mound now, how do you think hitters feel about it? Which anticipates another issue for a pitcher with a lot of mileage under his belt: Analytics, forcing a pitcher who might be a known quantity to find new ways to still upset hitters’ timing.
“Gosh, with the statistics nowadays? I just want to make sure guys won’t have a good idea of what they should sit on in certain situations. So at least then I still have that upper hand.”
But remember, Hamels is trying to do this at the same time that he’s also adjusting for what he might lose to age, compensating for that with what he’s learned, not only from direct experience, but from the benefit of playing with pitchers who’ve faced these same challenges in their 30s.
“A big person for me was Cliff Lee,” Hamels answered when asked about his possible models. “He and I, pitching together, I saw him transition from throwing more four-seam to throwing more two-seam fastballs, and really kind of going for little last-minute movement. Because we all kind of understand that, as we get older and amass the kind of innings, velocity goes down and you need a little bit more movement.”
With any effort to do things differently, you’re risking hiccups of execution. Take Hamels’ last turn on April 20 while facing the Astros. To start the game, Hamels hit Jose Altuve on a cutter at 1-1, then pegged George Springer with a full-count fastball to put himself in a quick quandary.
“I was trying to make pitches, and they were just a little in too much,” Hamels mused. “It was the beginning of the game, you’ve got that energy, and you don’t want to leave balls over the plate to those guys because they’re very powerful. So I think I was nitpicking a little bit more instead of just going after them and maybe just letting them get themselves out.”
But as Brocail notes, that’s when Hamels’ effort to make himself into a more well-rounded pitcher paid off: “Watch that guy when his back’s against the wall. You want to see good s---, watch then. Because when his back was against the wall, last time out? He was one of the best pitchers in the league.”
Hamels first struck out Carlos Correa on changeups, then got Tyler White looking with a 92 mph fastball to start a strike-’em-out, throw-’em-out double play to turn something into nothing for the Astros.
As far as Hamels’ success with the Rangers, sure, run support has certainly helped, like getting the benefit of 6.3 runs per game with Texas last year. Look at it from a narrowly analytical reductionism, and you might chuck his Rangers record into the realm of happy circumstance, categorized by luck and run support. Hamels’ Fielding Independent Pitching during his time with Texas is 4.10, considerably higher than his 3.40 ERA, certainly not the sort of number that suggests his success is sustainable.
Skip that, the games in the past are already won. You shouldn’t get too worked up over an aggregate rate over 16 individual games split between two seasons and start talking reflexively about regression. Instead, remember where Hamels is coming from, where he is now, what he’s working with and what he’s trying to do. Cole Hamels isn’t a fixed quantity. No player is. But he isn’t just rolling with what Father Time and Dame Fortune might have thrown at him by way of new challenges, he’s spinning his stuff differently to stay ahead of that wave. Live for the day, use what you’ve got, beat who you face, earn more tomorrows. If regression is a tide, leave it to Hamels to catch his own wave and try riding it in.
Christina Kahrl writes about MLB for ESPN. You can follow her on Twitter.