Last year the Cubs acquired a tall (6'7") RHP early in the free agent period. He relied on throwing a low 90s two-seamer with good plane, pounding the lower part of the zone and looking to draw weak ground ball contact. The problem is that that style of pitching doesn't always show up well in the spring. Pitchers are stronger and tend to leave leave the ball up, the thin air sometimes takes the edge off some of their good movement, and maybe that precise location hasn't shown up yet that early in the year.
That pitcher put up an 0-3 record with an 11.25 ERA in the spring. He got pounded, leaving the ball up, giving up 38 hits, including a whopping 7 HRs, in just 20 innings of work.
The previous year, another pitcher had similar issues with command and the long ball, putting up a 10.67 ERA, giving up 7 walks, 24 hits and 4 HRs in 14.1 innings and 24 HRs.
What were the Cubs thinking? It certainly didn't take long for some fans to call for the Cubs to dump their new acquisitions.
That first pitcher was Scott Feldman and he was arguably the Cubs best pitcher in the first half last season, particularly the first two months, along with Travis Wood, who was that second pitcher we mentioned. Wood took a bit longer but he was also pretty effective in that 2012 season after his poor spring, putting up a 4.27 ERA, including a 3.05 ERA in the first half of that season.
Although Wood is a different kind of pitcher, he also relies on keeping his two seamer low in the zone and the ball in the park, so there are similarities in terms of approach.
By comparison, another tall (6'6") RHP, Jason Hammel, is actually having a much better swing than Feldman did. He has kept the ball in the park but for him it has come at the expense of throwing strikes. Like Wood, he has also struggled with his command, keeping the ball and allowing 17 hits and walking 8 in 12.2 innings. But unlike either of the previous two pitchers, Hammel has kept the ball in the park. So far he has yet to allow a HR and has put up a comparatively solid 4.26 ERA.
Now I'm not saying that just because Wood and Feldman had atrocious springs and then good seasons that the same will happen with Hammel, but what I am saying is that sometimes we put a little too much into what happens in the spring, especially when we're dealing with pitchers who depend on keeping the ball down in the zone to have success.
I like Hammel's potential to get off to a good start in 2014. His low to mid 90s velocity, the good downward plane, and the movement on his two seamer will make him tough in that cold April weather. If he can keep the ball at the knees, then it's going to be difficult for hitters to hit the ball into the air. What we should see instead is hitters pounding the ball into the ground and right into the teeth of a good infield defense, a strategy that plays right into the Cubs plans.
Last year Hammel put up a solid 3.79 ERA in the first month of the season but was unable to sustain it all year. The year before he was even better, putting up a 1.97 ERA. In 2011, it was 3.23. That's a 3.02 ERA over the last 3 seasons for April over 98.1 innings.
The key for Hammel in 2014 is to sustain that level, something he only did in only one of those 3 seasons (2012).
Hammel has been more effective throwing the two-seam FB in recent seasons and Cubs pitching coach Chris Bosio has been very effective teaching pitchers to work with that pitch in Wrigley Field. It seems to me that the Cubs think that they can get similar results with the Bosio and Hammel tandem as they did with Bosio and Feldman, especially early in the season.
What that translates to in the long term remains to be seen. The Cubs ultimately traded Feldman, but that was due in large part to the Cubs being out of contention by the July. They kept Travis Wood, but that was mostly because he was young, pre-prime, and cost-controlled. None of those things apply with Hammel at this point.
There are too many variables to say with any kind of certainty so for now, the main concern is to get Hammel off on the right foot If the team struggles as many expect, then he becomes trade bait. But if the Cubs surprise as a team, they can deal with it then. Even if the Cubs do get off to a good start, they may still want to deal him with an eye toward helping the present team and adding cost control, as the Jake Arrieta/Pedro Strop return did last year. But if they can't do something like that, then it wouldn't shock me to see the Cubs hang on to him if they think they have any chance to win in 2014.
But that's a bridge they can cross later. For now, I'm only saying that we shouldn't worry about the mediocre spring. The goal is to get Hammel off to a good start (and hopefully the Cubs along with him) and go from there.
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