When the Chicago Cubs acquired Cole Hamels from the Rangers before the trade deadline, it looked like the team was just buying a lotto ticket. Hamels, who was putting up a disastrous 5.19 FIP with the Rangers in 2018, was just another formerly great but presently iffy arm who could join the rest of the Cubs’ starters in decline like Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks, Jose Quintana, and the injured Yu Darvish. Maybe one of them, the hope was, could improve enough to be a playoff ace.
So far, the bet on Hamels has paid off. In his debut month with the Cubs, Hamels hasn’t merely pitched better than he did with the Rangers, but he’s nearly regained the form that he had when he was dominating with the Phillies almost a decade ago. The 34-year-old Cubs newcomer has rocketed to the top of the rotation on the back of six straight stellar starts—all of which have ended with a Cubs victory. Hamels’s WHIP with his new team is 1.00, compared to 1.37 in Texas, and his ERA is sitting at a very nice 0.69 in 39 innings.
Hamels’s most recent showing—in a game that began Tuesday night and ended Wednesday afternoon—featured him throwing five scoreless frames, helping the Cubs stay even with the Jacob deGrom–led Mets and eventually win 2-1 in extras, their seventh straight victory. Five scoreless isn’t exactly phenomenal, but when it closes out an entire month of appearances in which Hamels has given up either one or zero earned runs (including a complete game in his previous start), it’s a part of something pretty incredible.
There’s reason to believe his success can continue. For one, Hamels really needed to get the hell out of Arlington. This season, Hamels’s home FIP with the Rangers was a scarcely believable 6.16 compared to 4.17 on the road; he averaged nearly two more strikeouts per 9 in away games; his opponents’ average was .289 at home vs. just .220 on the road. This trend has held for Hamels’s entire stint with Texas, particularly in 2016, when opponents hit 56 points better and his ERA was two runs higher at home than on the road. He won’t see the Rangers for the rest of the season, though, and Hamels seems to think it was more than just the ballpark anyway:
Beyond the change of scenery, Hamels also credits his turnaround to a mechanical shift that’s slowly come along since his return from an oblique injury in the middle of last season. That strain, Hamels says, threw off the synchronization between his top and bottom halves during his delivery, causing both the command and velocity of his fastball to plummet. Once he worked out those kinks—shortening his stride and landing less open, he says—it gave Hamels a few extra MPH and more swings-and-misses on that four-seamer, which in turn increased the effectiveness of his secondary pitches, too.
Whatever the changes, they’re far from a full makeover:
But small tweaks can mean the difference between a meatball and strikeout heat. And, as the Cubs are quickly learning, it can also make the difference between a successful season and a disappointing one.