Chicago Cubs: Playoff push could be just what Cole Hamels needs

Hamels hasn’t impressed this season—but he’s always stepped up his game when the lights are brightest.

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(Photo Credit: Keith Allison)

One of the last big names in the trade market for starting pitchers has officially come off the board as of Friday, when the Chicago Cubs acquired Cole Hamels from the Texas Rangers for right-handed pitchers Eddie Butler and Rollie Lacy, plus a player to be named later.

Hamels came into the season as one of the biggest names that could move mid-season, but he’s under-performed in this, his age-34 season. That’s been disappointing for many, most of all the Rangers, who have been forced to sell low on what they must have thought would be a valuable asset at the start of the season. But given what we know about Hamels, the change of scenery might just be what the doctor ordered for one last big run from the lefty.

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Surface struggles

On the surface, Hamels’ numbers this season are straight-up ugly: 5-9 with a 4.72 ERA and a 1.373 WHIP in 20 starts. The fuel for those terrible numbers is the surrender of an ungodly number of home runs—23 so far this year.

But if you look deeper, there are signs that Hamels can still contribute to a playoff team. His home/road splits are remarkable. At home, he’s 1-7 in his 10 starts with a 6.41 ERA in 59 innings, and has given up 16 of those 23 homers. Everywhere else, he’s been practically elite. In 10 road starts, he’s 4-2 with a 2.93 ERA in 55.1 IP. Crucially, his overall K/9 rate has spiked back up from 6.4 last year to 9.0 thanks to the addition of a slider at the start of the year to complement a changeup that for a long time was the best in the game and is still up there even today.

The fact of the matter is home runs have always been a bugaboo for Hamels, and his home ballparks have never helped. Going from the cozy Citizens Bank Park to the outright launching pad that is Globe Life Park in Arlington, one of the few places in the league that makes Philly seem big, hurt. But his peripheral numbers say a change of scenery—and a move to the top of a division—will do him good.

Big game Cole

The biggest benefit Hamels will get out of this trade is the motivation of a playoff race.

Save for 2009, when he was poor across the board, Hamels has always been in top shape in the playoffs. In five postseasons with the Phillies from 2007-2011, he posted a 7-4 record and a 3.09 ERA, striking out 77 batters in 81.2 innings and holding opposing hitters to a .218 batting average. He was MVP of both the 2008 NLCS and World Series, going 4-0 in five starts with a 1.80 ERA over the entire postseason. His masterful five-hit shutout of the Cincinnati Reds at Great American Ballpark in Game 3 of the 2010 NLDS would have been the talk of Philadelphia had Roy Halladay not thrown a no-hitter three days earlier.

After his move to Texas in 2015, he held the Toronto Blue Jays to two earned runs in each of his ALDS starts, although defensive lapses led to five unearned tallies over the two games, culminating in Jose Bautista’s epic bat-flip homer in Game 5.

Even though the Jays ran a train on him in his last playoff start, the opener of the 2016 Division Series, Hamels has still shown up for big games. In April and May he faced, in succession, the Indians (away), Red Sox (at home), Astros (away) and Yankees (at home) and held the AL’s best teams to seven runs (five earned) and 14 hits in 24 innings, striking out 25 hitters.

Cubs manager Joe Maddon knows first-hand how well Hamels does when the chips are down—he watched Hamels bookend the Phillies’ World Series victory over his Tampa Bay Rays in 2008. He’ll be getting one of the best big-game pitchers of the last decade to plug the rotation holes left by Yu Darvish (injured) and Tyler Chatwood (terrible), and if anyone mentions home runs, he’ll likely remind them of this: at Wrigley in October, the wind blows in.

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