Why Cole Hamels Is Making Phillies History

There's plenty of blame to go around.

No one would have blamed Cole Hamels if he pitched six innings of a Little League game Saturday morning, just to have a set of competent fielders behind him. The Phillies’ performance in Friday night’s revolting loss to the Brewers—three errors, with two more that should have been awarded—was enough to make Hamels contemplate a return to his youth baseball roots in search of capable defensive.

There can be no denying the shoddy luck, sloppy defense and frail offensive support that have plagued Hamels en route to an historic 1-9 start after two months of play. Hamels is the first Phils pitcher since Kid Gleason in 1891 to lose nine games before June. That’s saying something, considering luminaries like Boom-Boom Beck (career record 38-69) spent four years in Philadelphia dodging tracers lined back through the box.

It’s a convenient storyline, to be sure: Former World Series MVP and $144 million contract holder suffers from a run of misfortune to slide into the abyss. Some of that is true. This Phillies offense is horrific, and that’s not going to change.

But it’s time to give Hamels a large chunk of credit for his misfortune. He’s simply not the pitcher he was last year. Hamels is running high pitch counts early in games and is unable to overcome his teammates’ gaffes to get outs when he needs them. Sure, it’s unfortunate when little bloopers drop in for cheap hits, but when you’re not inducing hitters to hit weak grounders to middle infielders, you run the risk of getting burned on the small change stuff.

Hamels is also not ringing up the strikeouts like he has during his most successful seasons. Over the past five years, he has averaged 32 starts a campaign. If he makes that many in 2013, he’s on pace to whiff 176 batters, the second-lowest figure of the previous five seasons. Only his 168 in 2009, when Hamels was 10-11, with a 4.32 ERA, are fewer.

It’s tempting to psychoanalyze Hamels and read his body language when Humberto Quintero forgets to chase a popup behind the plate, or Delmon Young mangles a fly ball chance in right. Hamels has never been the most stoic guy on the mound, but he seems in much better control of himself than he did in past years, when he was clearly unable to contain his emotions after his teammates let him down. He might be still bothered, but that’s not the issue here. Neither is the contract he signed last summer. Hamels isn’t the kind of guy who would get paid and then slack off. He works too hard for that.

Perhaps that is why Phillies fans should be so scared. If it were just emotions, Hamels could snap out of it with a few good performances, gain confidence and roll to big things during the final two-thirds of the season. But these problems seem to be more physical than anything else.

Hamels is getting two-strike counts on hitters and failing to put them away with a strikeout or anything else. He lacks that aura of control that Cliff Lee has been exuding throughout this season. During his best campaigns, Hamels seemed as if he was almost daring hitters to dig in against him. It didn’t matter what they did; they had no chance against him. That isn’t the case right now. Hamels has lasted longer than seven innings twice in 12 starts. On three occasions, he has thrown more than 100 pitches in under six frames. His velocity is the same, so it’s not a Roy Halladay situation.

Is this an aberration, or could there be something else at work? There have been some whispers—and outright declarations—that Hamels could be injured. ESPN’s Jayson Stark has reported that Hamels is throwing fewer curveballs this year than last. That could mean some arm trouble. Remember that CSNPhilly.com’s Jim Salisbury said that Hamels admitted to him that he felt some discomfort in his throwing shoulder during the off-season.

The goal here is not to speculate about injury. It’s to point out that despite the Phillies’ awful offensive support and sporadically comical fielding, Hamels has plenty of culpability in his 1-9 start. He isn’t the same pitcher he was last year, and other teams know that. They aren’t overwhelmed when behind in the count and don’t seem to be worried about whether Hamels can dominate them. Sure, Friday featured some misfortune and teammate incompetence, but Hamels contributed plenty by surrendering 12 hits in just five innings.

The Phillies have a lot of problems, and the blame can be put in a lot of places. (More on that later; I promise.) But it’s wrong to say that fate is playing the most cards in Hamels’ rotten start. He deserves a lot of the blame, and until he solves the problems that have robbed him of the effectiveness that led to his big contract, he will continue to make history.

In ways he would prefer not to make it.


• Roy Hibbert’s hate speech during the press conference following Indiana’s game six win over Miami is uncalled for, and the league was right to fine him $75,000 for his venom. Those who brushed it off as “locker room talk” had better recalibrate their sensibilities. It’s out of line, period. The next dose should be hit with a six-figure penalty.

• By the way, how much do you think the NBA wants to see a Spurs-Pacers Finals series? About as much as they want a franchise splitting time in Kansas City and Omaha again. I’m not suggesting for a moment that the Heat is destined to win tonight, but it will be interesting to see if there are any “interesting” calls by the refs during the game. Or outright felonies.

• Do you think Rutgers president/fourth Stooge Robert Barchi was delighted when Ohio State president/Keystone Kop Gordon Gee’s anti-Catholic routine was made public last week? Unfortunately, there isn’t another school leader as stupid as Gee to grab the headlines this week, so Barchi and the Rutgers athletic director follies will probably return to the forefront again this week. That’s good.