Reunited and it Feels Kinda Good: Jason Hammel Returns to Chicago

According to Jon Heyman, the Cubs are going to pull off the rare “trade a player and re-sign him the following offseason” sleight of hand move. Jason Hammel is expected to sign a deal with the Chicago Cubs soon. Reports are that the deal is for two years with a club option for a third and will guarantee Hammel $20 million ($18M for two years, plus a $2M buyout if the option isn’t picked up).

This makes Hammel the third-most-eventful addition by the current regime and the most important that will actually take the field in 2015. That said, Hammel checks a number of boxes that the front office was looking for in beefing up the staff. The Cubs were looking to add two starters this offseason, and a need for innings has been stressed by the brass.

However, that is just one area where this deal is less than overwhelming. The Cubs desperately need guys that can be counted on for innings, and Jason Hammel’s 176.1 frames in 2014 was just four outs short of his career high. Last season also marked the first time since 2011 that he had crossed the 170 innings-pitched plateau.

Also of note is how different this signing is for this front office, which has rarely given out multi-year deals to players over 30. What’s more, Hammel is not coming off a subpar season with strong peripherals. In fact, he represents the opposite of what the Cubs have targeted value-wise given his 3.47 ERA to 3.92 FIP (though to be fair his xFIP was 3.57 and SIERA was 3.50).

Jason Hammel is very familiar to the Cubs staff given his time in Chicago and in Tampa with Joe Maddon and Dave Martinez. He was also remarkably good while in Chicago, especially compared to his time in Oakland. His ERA with the Cubs was 3.01, compared to a 4.34 in Oakland.

Actually, everything declined for Hammel after moving to the tougher league. The trade saw his FIP and xFIP rise from 3.31 and 3.29 to 5.00 and 4.09, respectively, and his K%-BB% even declined from 17.9% to 12.6%. Hammel was able to recover though posting a very strong September that rivaled anything he did in Chicago: 2.20 ERA, 3.03 FIP, 3.22 xFIP and 22.2% K%-BB%.

The drastic difference in Hammel’s approach from Chicago to Oakland, and how this offers a real-life study of two opposing viewpoints on pitching philosophies, must be noted. Hammel threw 60% fastballs in both halves of the season, but the kind of fastball changed dramatically. In Chicago, he threw over 30% two-seamers, but in Oakland he threw less than 10%.

This makes sense as a reflection of the contrary philosophies of noted groundball wizard Chris Bosio and Oakland’s flyball preferences. The numbers back up that approach change, with Hammel’s groundball rate dropping from 42.6% in Chicago to 34.8% in Oakland.

Is it fair to say that the drop-off July and August came as the result of adjusting to a new approach in pitch selection? I am not certain, but it is interesting to see how easily a narrative can be crafted to describe the ups and downs of Hammel’s season.

Moving forward though, there may be cause for some concern when it comes to the marked increase in slider usage, which was around 30% in both Chicago and Oakland. It is an injury risk to throw that many hard breaking pitches with a starter’s workload, and this is a pitcher not noted for durability in his career to begin with.

Speaking of Oakland, what about Hammel’s former staff member and Cubs white whale Jon Lester. Patrick Mooney noted these connections:

Hammel and Lester both grew up in Washington and as kids played against each other in tournaments in the Pacific Northwest. They played together in the Bay Area as A’s general manager Billy Beane reshaped the team around the trade deadline

I can’t can’t say how much that really would sway Jon Lester, and frankly I am tired of speculating what this or that means in the Lester derby, but I do think it is a bigger draw than signing David Ross. That said, the addition of Jason Hammel certainly doesn’t counter the moves made by Boston or the advantages that Boston enjoys in the process. Clarity on the Lester situation hopefully comes later today.

At least this deal is official, and it is hard to be mad about it in any way. While the move isn’t sexy, the Cubs managed to grab a needed arm on a cheap two-year deal. There’s no doubt it will be an underwhelming outcome if this is the highest-profile addition they make this offseason, but the 2015 Cubs are clearly better with Hammel in the rotation.

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