By Tom Mulherin
ARLINGTON – With another short outing Sunday afternoon as part of a 7-4 loss to the Blue Jays, Rangers ace Cole Hamels isn’t exactly having a very ace-like start to this season.
By allowing seven runs – five earned – on eight hits, two home runs and two walks through 5 1/3 innings during this third start of the year, his earned-run average bumped up to a 5.06. He also co-leads the majors in home runs allowed (five) with Oakland’s Kendall Graveman, has failed to complete six innings in any of his starts, and a noticeable drop in his fastball velocity from years past has prompted many to grow concerned with how effective he can actually be this year.
The Rangers, however, are not among those concerned this early on, with manager Jeff Banister denying any signs of vulnerability for the rest of the season.
“I don’t think he’s susceptible to teams,” Banister said. “You see guys with the same (velocity) fastball quite often. … Cole is a great thinking pitcher, he knows how to pitch. He has good command and feel for the baseball.”
It’s easy to disagree at first glance of the basic numbers, but this kind of a start to the season actually isn’t uncommon for the lefthander.
Since he debuted in 2006, this actually marks the sixth time Hamels has posted an ERA higher than 4.31 through the first three starts of the season. He’s also allowed at least three bombs this early six times. Yet, he’s only ended with an ERA of at least 4.00 twice in such instances, and even posted stellar seasons – as far as ERA goes – in 2010 (3.06), 2011 (2.79), 2014 (2.46) and 2016 (3.32) despite poor starts in each year.
Of course, this season does have an unfamiliar taste with a bit of a change in pitching style, as Hamels has been forced to focus more on moving pitches across the zone as his fastball has dipped from around 92 mph last year to around 89 mph this year. That’s a tough thing to adjust to for a lefthander that has blown the four-seamer past hitters for years.
But, again, the Rangers aren’t concerned.
“(Hamel’s got) the ability to mix (pitches),” Banister said. “He’s a good pitcher. He knows how to get hitters to swing and miss and he’s got good stuff.”
Speaking of swing and miss, a perfect example of how potentially effective Hamel still is can be seen in the four-time All-Star’s early strikeout success.
Aided by an 11-strikeout performance last week in a win over the Oakland A’s, Hamels entered Monday leading the majors with 23 strikeouts. As far as personal success goes, the only other time he reached 23 punch outs through the first three starts of a year was in 2012, and that’s when he went on to post a career-high 216 Ks and tied for eighth in the National League Cy Young voting. And that year he even dealt two more innings (18 1/3) compared to his 16 innings so far this year, which can be looked at both positively and negatively.
Banister takes a lot of value in how Hamels has been able to strike out guys so far. So does Hamels himself, knowing how his career-low 105 strikeouts last year resulted in his worst ERA (4.20) since a career-worst 4.32 mark in 2009.
“It’s becoming more of an important figure for me just because it limits damage,” Hamels said. “If you can get out of (jams), I think that’s kind of the philosophy of this dangerous division, dangerous league. You’ve got to be able to get out of situations because we’re going to be in it throughout a whole season. Last year I didn’t do so much so, and I think that kind of led to giving up a lot more runs.”
Now, this isn’t all to say that Hamels is going to be a Cy Young contender this year. He’s 34 years old and past his prime. Hamels still needs to show he’ll be able to help the Rangers avoid another taxing season on the bullpen by lasting deeper, and his fastball will be an issue at times, as Toronto showed us Sunday by being aggressive early in counts to avoid his otherworldly changeup.
But the panic button is still far away at this point of the season. Hamels frequently struggles this early in the year, and has found a way to end almost each season as one of baseball’s top lefthanders.
We’ll see what path he heads toward against the Houston Astros on Saturday.