Kansas City Royals: What happened to Jason Hammel?

The veteran righty has been on a rough decline since joining the Royals and it’s time management took a long look at his performance.

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(Photo Credit: Ian Munroe)

When Jason Hammel signed a two-year, $16m contract with the Kansas City Royals following the 2016 season, it seemed like a great value signing. The veteran righty had just won a World Series ring with the Chicago Cubs and, though he wasn’t on the postseason roster, he still went 15-10 on the year with a respectable 3.83 ERA. As he entered his age 34 season, there was nothing to suggest he would take a major step backward.

Oh, how wrong GM Dayton Moore was. Hammel posted a 5.29 ERA in 2017 and 2018 has not been much better. In yesterday’s outing against the Houston Astros, Hammel was rocked for nine runs (seven earned) on six hits in four innings of work as Kansas City lost 11-3, ballooning his ERA on the year to 5.34 from an already lacking 4.88, while his record dropped to 2-9. The Royals now rank dead last in MLB with a staff ERA of 5.21 and cutting Hammel loose could be the first step in the right direction.

Who’s to blame?

Though the easiest route is to point everything at Hammel’s advancing age as the result of his decline, the metrics tell a slightly different story. Yes, his K/9 fell from 7.78 in 2016 to 7.24 last season and even further to 5.88 in 2018, but his walk rate has actually gone down since he put on a KC uniform. Hammel’s BB/9 went from 2.86 with the Cubs in 2016 to 2.40 last season and has only risen slightly to 2.49 so far this year. Hammel has also given up fewer home runs as a Royal, with his HR/9 on the year sitting below 1.00.

There is also Hammel’s ground ball rate (GB%) to consider. It sits at 42.7% for his career and was 42.1% in his final year as a Cub, but dipped to 38% last year and only slightly rose back up to 39.3% this season. That said, what’s the problem? Who is to blame for Hammel’s struggles? Based on the numbers, he doesn’t seem to be solely responsible for such a downturn.

The answer can be found in a few places. Hammel’s BABIP last year was .318 and his FIP and xFIP were, respectively, 4.37 and 4.92. Hammel’s hard and medium contact percentages didn’t rise significantly, so 2017 can be largely attributed to bad luck because according to his FIP and xFIP, his defense wasn’t exactly helping him out.

Granted, Hammel’s FIP and xFIP have slightly improved this season, currently standing at 4.02 and 4.83, but they cannot be solely blamed for his poor performance. Rather, Hammel’s poor performance this year falls on him. His soft contact allowed has dropped from 16.6% to 12.5% and his medium contact allowed has fallen from 51.8% to 39.7%.

Hammel’s hard contact, on the other hand, has risen from 31.6% last year to 47.8% in 2018. His BABIP stands at .320 and his average fastball velocity has dipped to 91.3 miles per hour, down from 92.1 last year along with Hammel’s career mark of 92.5. His velocity is down across all of his pitches, per FanGraphs, but that tends to happen with most pitchers as they turn 35. Make no mistake, though he’s not entirely at fault, Hammel is on the decline.

What’s next?

Deciding what to do with Hammel is easier said than done. Moore could just designate him for assignment and release him, but he would still have to pay him what remains of his $9m salary for this year. Hammel’s contract also carries a $12m mutual option for 2019, and a $2m buyout if both sides agree to part ways. The July 31 trade deadline is also coming up, so Moore could try and sell low on his veteran righty.

But who would take over? Kansas City owns MLB’s worst record at 23-54 and could be headed for a lengthy rebuild, and top pitching prospect Scott Blewett has gone 4-4 with a 5.70 ERA at Double-A Northwest Arkansas. That said, unless the Royals can get an MLB-ready pitcher of some sort in a deal for Hammel, the best thing to do would be to ride out the season with him, decline the option, and select a top pitcher in next year’s draft.

Regardless of what happens, one thing is clear. Jason Hammel is not the pitcher he used to be.