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.

An Astros executive asked scouts to use cameras, binoculars to steal signs in 2017

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The Athletic reports that an Astros executive asked scouts to spy on opponents’ dugouts in August of 2017, suggesting in an email that they use cameras or binoculars to do so.

The email, ESPN’s Jeff Passan reports, came from Kevin Goldstein, who is currently a special assistant for player personnel but who at the time was the director of pro scouting. In it he wrote:

“One thing in specific we are looking for is picking up signs coming out of the dugout. What we are looking for is how much we can see, how we would log things, if we need cameras/binoculars, etc. So go to game, see what you can (or can’t) do and report back your findings.”

The email came during the same month that the Red Sox were found to have illegally used an Apple Watch to steal signs from the Yankees. The Red Sox were fined as a result, and it led to a clarification from Major League Baseball that sign stealing via electronic or technological means was prohibited. Early in 2019 Major League Baseball further emphasized this rule and stated that teams would receive heavy penalties, including loss of draft picks and/or bonus pool money if they were found to be in violation.

It’s an interesting question whether Goldstein’s request to scouts would fall under the same category as the Apple Watch stuff or other technology-based sign-stealing schemes. On the one hand, the email certainly asked scouts to use cameras and binoculars to get a look at opposing signs. On the other hand, it does not appear that it was part of a sign-relaying scheme or that it was to be used in real time. Rather, it seems aimed at information gathering for later use. The Athletic suggests that using eyes or binoculars would be considered acceptable in 2017 but that cameras would not be. The Athletic spoke to scouts and other front office people who all think that asking scouts to use a camera would “be over the line” or would constitute “cheating.”

Of course, given how vague, until very recently Major League Baseball’s rules have been about this — it’s long been governed by the so-called “unwritten rules” and convention, only recently becoming a matter of official sanction — it’s not at all clear how the league might consider it. It’s certainly part and parcel of an overarching sign-stealing culture in baseball which we are learning has moved far, far past players simply looking on from second base to try to steal signs, which has always been considered a simple matter of gamesmanship. Now, it appears, it is organizationally-driven, with baseball operations, scouting and audio-visual people being involved. The view on all of this has changed given how sophisticated and wide-ranging an operation modern sign-stealing appears to be. Major League Baseball was particularly concerned, at the time the Red Sox were punished for the Apple Watch stuff, that it involved management and front office personnel.

Regardless of how that all fits together, Goldstein’s email generated considerable angst among Astros scouts, many of whom, The Athletic and ESPN report, commented in real time via email and the Astros scout’s Slack channel, that they considered it to be an unreasonable request that would risk their reputations as scouts. Some voiced concern to management. Today that email has new life, emerging as it does in the wake of last week’s revelations about the Astros’ sign-stealing schemes.

This is quickly becoming the biggest story of the offseason.