Yu Darvish

Someone with the Yankees wonders if Cole Hamels is still an ace

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There was an interesting snippet in Jon Heyman’s column for CBS Sports:

Yankees people shot down rumors that they are thinking more about Cole Hamels now that Tanaka’s out. “Not looking,” one Yankees person said. Another wondered if Hamels is still an ace, or merely a big name.

Before getting into the accuracy of Hamels’ designation as an ace, it is important to recognize two factors here. One, an anonymous team source wouldn’t be quoted for saying something obvious like, “Cole Hamels is good.” Secondly, this anonymous team source is not exactly the most impartial judge of talent, as the Yankees would like to pay as little as possible for Hamels. Talking him up in the media, even anonymously, works against that task.

Anyway. Hamels, 31, has four years and $96 million remaining on his contract with the Phillies. Comparing his level of talent with other elite pitchers, he is significantly cheaper. That’s even true if he requires an acquiring team to guarantee his $20 million option for the 2019 season, which would tack on an additional $14 million (since the $6 million buyout clause is already factored in), putting him at $110 million over five years.

Three of Hamels’ peers signed big contracts in the off-season. James Shields, 33, got a four-year, $75 million contract from the Padres. Jon Lester, 31, got $155 million over six years from the Cubs. Max Scherzer, 30, signed a seven-year, $210 million contract with the Nationals. Here’s how Hamels stacks up with the trio since the start of the 2012 season, per FanGraphs:

Name ERA IP K% BB% GB% HR/FB xFIP
Cole Hamels 3.06 671.0 23.7% 6.5% 44.5% 10.5% 3.32
Max Scherzer 3.15 651.0 28.5% 6.9% 36.5% 8.3% 3.18
James Shields 3.28 714.1 21.6% 6.1% 46.2% 10.5% 3.48
Jon Lester 3.74 660.0 21.3% 6.8% 45.4% 9.5% 3.56

By ERA, Hamels is the best of the group and it isn’t particularly close after Scherzer. However, prior to 2015, Hamels is the only one who benefited from throwing against opposing pitchers instead of a designated hitter. That’s why ERA retrodictors like xFIP are useful. But even there, Hamels is a peer of Scherzer’s and a superior to Lester and Shields. If one considers Scherzer to be an ace — and his contract would seem to indicate that — then it would seem one would also have to consider Hamels an ace. That’s certainly the case if such a designation is given to Shields and Lester.

Let’s expand the scope a bit. Since the beginning of the 2012 season, Hamels is one of 12 pitchers (min. 500 innings) to have an adjusted ERA (a.k.a. ERA+) of 125 or better. ERA+ adjusts for league and park effects and sets average at 100. A pitcher would be penalized a bit for pitching at Petco Park and given extra credit for pitching at Coors Field. Hamels is tied at 125 with Adam Wainwright and David Price. Zack Greinke, Yu Darvish, Jordan Zimmermann, and Doug Fister are only a point or two above the trio at 125. All of them, perhaps with the exception of Fister, would be considered aces. Therefore, one might conclude, Hamels too is an ace.

For a number of reasons, including his struggles in 2009 and the Phillies’ inability to provide him with run support, Hamels has been underappreciated for most of his career. It’s a strange case considering how dominant Hamels has been in the playoffs. He earned World Series MVP honors in 2008 to help the Phillies overcome the Rays in five games. He also has a career 3.09 ERA with a 77/21 K/BB ratio in 81 2/3 post-season innings. It is interesting to note Hamels hasn’t gotten nearly the amount of adulation other players — Derek Jeter, for instance — got for being productive when it mattered most.