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Is Jason Hammel for real?

6/27/2012

I've been a bit critical in analyzing the contending Baltimore Orioles and whether they are capable of sustaining their fine start, mainly because it's tough to buy into their starting pitching in baseball's toughest division. However, when it comes to right-hander Jason Hammel, freed from what has to be the most frustrating place to pitch (Coors Field), his numbers don't scream fluke.

Hammel is scheduled to face ballyhooed right-hander Jered Weaver of the Los Angeles Angels on Wednesday, and while many would simply assume Weaver is having the superior season and is far more deserving of an All-Star spot, whatever glorification that really holds, perhaps that's not so. After all, entering Wednesday, Hammel ranks 15th among starting pitchers on ESPN's Player Rater this season, while Weaver is ... 16th.

Hammel is owned in all ESPN standard (10-team) leagues, but it sure took a while to get him there. A few days ago, he was still in the 95 percent range. Hammel's past two outings have been exemplary, with 18 strikeouts and nary an earned run allowed in wins over the Atlanta Braves and Washington Nationals. Yes, those are National League East teams, and no division truly compares to the mighty American League East. Perhaps this is where Hammel's numbers will regress to more of what was expected.

After all, this is a pitcher who entered 2012 with a career 4.99 ERA and 1.47 WHIP, and he certainly wasn't Ubaldo Jimenez in the strikeout department, either. The problem wasn't all Denver's hitter-friendly stadium and atmosphere. Hammel started his career with the Tampa Bay Rays and posted a 5.90 ERA over 207 1/3 innings. While with the Colorado Rockies, Hammel didn't exactly dominate in road games, either. His career splits between home and road are nearly even.

Hammel has faced the New York Yankees twice this season and wasn't terrible either time, though in the second outing he allowed five runs (four earned). He struck out eight Red Sox in a May appearance. In 14 starts, Hammel has permitted two or fewer runs 10 times, and he is among the league leaders in Wins Above Replacement.

What's shocking is that he is displaying a strikeout rate unlike anything he has ever shown before, at 8.7 per nine innings, likely buoyed by extra fastball velocity from previous seasons and increased and successful reliance on his slider, a pitch that likely works better out of Colorado. Maybe he is just throwing it better.

There is likely a confidence angle going on as well. Shouldn't pitchers be happy to leave the thin air? Think Jeremy Guthrie, the fellow traded for Hammel, is happy with his 6.34 ERA and demotion to the bullpen? (Matt Lindstrom went to Baltimore as well, and he has a 1.29 ERA in 14 innings.)

Frankly, and I didn't start to believe this until mid-May, Hammel is a different pitcher now. His batting average against is excellent despite brutal career marks, and he has become more of a ground ball option as well. It hasn't hurt that Baltimore's bullpen has been among baseball's best, helping to keep the runners Hammel has left on base from scoring and aiding him for victories. His .267 BABIP is also well below career marks. Ultimately, however, the strikeout rate is the biggest difference-maker.

The broader question is how much does pitching in the AL East hurt a guy like Hammel, someone blossoming unexpectedly at 29 and potentially pitching over his head? It's quite different facing the Washington offense last week, in which he fanned 10 hitters without a walk and didn't need 100 pitches to get through eight innings, and meeting Robinson Cano, David Ortiz, Jose Bautista and their respective pals three or four more times. Is Hammel a natural sell-high simply due to who he is or is it the expected change in schedule variance? He won't be facing the Nationals or Braves again, after all. Let's say there are a few factors in Hammel's future performance.

Some natural regression is likely, based on Hammel's past and the fact that a 2.61 ERA and 1.12 WHIP are tough for any hurler to sustain. A year ago, even in this hitter-challenging baseball world, only five qualified starting pitchers posted a final ERA better than 2.61.

I don't think it's fair to put all Orioles pitchers in the same boat -- or Blue Jays, Rays and even lesser Red Sox and Yankees, for that matter -- because of strength of division, though three of the top run-scoring teams in baseball are AL East members. Yes, September and October should be rougher than June has been for Hammel, as the Orioles face each division foe six times, but there is also a pair of road series in friendly Seattle and Oakland. And let's be clear, Hammel is good. Brian Matusz, Jake Arrieta and Tommy Hunter are not nearly on this level, and I'm selling on hittable lefty Wei-Yin Chen.

Hammel is pitching at a high level and deserves to represent the Orioles in the All-Star Game. This has not been a fluky start. However, it will be interesting to see how he fares in the second half, and I'd be prepared to avoid him if he struggles in September. He shouldn't fall apart if he maintains his rates in strikeouts, ground balls and hits, though, so an ERA around 3.75-4 and WHIP of 1.25 from here on out seem a bit more appropriate. That's still worth using in most fantasy leagues.