In a Wide-Open AL Cy Young Race, Why Not Cole Hamels?

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterJuly 29, 2016

Texas Rangers starting pitcher Cole Hamels throws during the third inning of a baseball game against the Kansas City Royals in Arlington, Texas, Thursday, July 28, 2016. (AP Photo/LM Otero)
LM Otero/Associated Press

Cole Hamels never really came close to winning a Cy Young Award when he was in the National League. He placed in the voting four times, but never higher than fifth. The competition was just too good.

So, maybe being in the American League and part of a race with too much competition is just the ticket he needs.

Hamels is taking care of his own business in his first full season with the Texas Rangers. The 32-year-old left-hander entered his Thursday assignment against the Kansas City Royals with an 11-2 record and a 2.87 ERA. He then improved on both marks in a 3-2 win, pitching eight innings of two-run ball with six hits, a walk and a season-high 12 strikeouts.

And now, for your viewing pleasure, the highlights:

The Rangers have gotten a full season's worth of starts from Hamels since acquiring him from the Philadelphia Phillies on deadline day last year. He's gone 19-3 with a 3.15 ERA in 217 innings. This is otherwise known as pretty good ROI.

Meanwhile, Hamels is as good a bet as anyone to win the AL Cy Young if he keeps this up.

Records aren't all the rage anymore, but he'll draw a crowd if he stays on a pace for 20 wins. His 2.84 ERA, which is second only to Aaron Sanchez's (2.72) among AL starters, will too. With 133.1 innings, Hamels is also in the top 10 of the AL in innings pitched.

If he's sounding like a top Cy Young candidate, that's because he is. This according to years of experience talking about such things, and also to ESPN.com's Cy Young predictor. It's tough to explain—the short version is that it's a doohickey that runs on thingamajiggery—but it has Hamels marked as one of the top five contenders for the award.

If you're looking for some kind of proclamation for Hamels as the man to beat, look elsewhere. This year's AL Cy Young race has no such thing.

In fact, it's hard to even call it a race. To borrow a line from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, it's less a race and more an endurance contest: a battle between evenly matched contenders in which the last man standing will win.

The Cy Young predictor makes that clear, showing Hamels in a thick bundle of well-qualified AL starters that also includes Sanchez, Chris Tillman, Chris Sale, Danny Salazar and, surprisingly, Zach Britton.

The wins above replacement leaderboard, a necessary go-to when discussing any awards race, doesn't clear things up. At Baseball-Reference.com, which keeps things simple with a WAR formula that focuses on runs allowed and innings pitched, the top of the leaderboard looked like this at the start of play Thursday:

AL Pitching WAR Leaders
1Danny SalazarIndians3.7
2Michael FulmerTigers3.6
3Chris TillmanOrioles3.6
4Cole HamelsRangers3.6
5Jose QuintanaWhite Sox3.5
6Carlos CarrascoIndians3.4
7Aaron SanchezBlue Jays3.4
8Chris SaleWhite Sox3.2

That's a large number of good pitchers packed into a not-large amount of space. Hamels is going to get a boost from his Thursday performance, but it won't be enough to put him clearly ahead of the rest of the pack.

With two months of baseball left, there's hardly a guarantee the AL Cy Young "race" will stay this closely bunched. But even if the number of contenders is cut in half by the end, the voters will still have a pickle on their hands. And to solve this particular pickle, they'd have to get nerdy.

And for now, that's where Hamels' case gets tricky.

Although his surface numbers are strong, David Schoenfield of ESPN.com is right in pointing out Hamels has weak peripherals. He's only ninth in the American League in strikeout rate (8.9 per nine innings) and in the bottom seven of the league in walk rate (3.4 per nine innings). 

Hamels isn't knocking down any doors with his quality of contact allowed either. According to Baseball Savant, he entered Thursday allowing an average of 87.8 miles per hour on batted balls. Solid, but not near the top of the leaderboard. He is also allowing 1.15 home runs per nine innings.

This could mean Hamels is getting lucky, and that in turn could mean a regression in the final two months of the season. That would more than likely knock him out of the AL Cy Young race.

Or, it could mean Hamels is outpacing his peripherals in invisible ways. That hasn't been his style in the past, but it's not fair to compare his past self to his current self. His past self was a fastball-changeup guy. Brooks Baseball can show his current self is something else:

Image courtesy BrooksBaseball.net.

Hamels is now a fastball-cutter pitcher who also shows a sinker, changeup and curveball. That's an unpredictable pitcher, which is precisely what he strives to be.

“It’s a matter of figuring it out and trying not to be predictable,” he said of making adjustments to Eno Sarris of FanGraphs last month.

Hamels may be at his most unpredictable when he absolutely needs to be. Compared to when nobody is on, it helps that his strikeout rate, walk rate and exit velocity are all better when runners are on base:

Hamels with Bases Empty and Bases Occupied
SituationK/9BB/9Exit Velo
Bases Empty8.64.488.4
Bases Occupied8.72.786.8
FanGraphs, Baseball Savant

Because few things explain Hamels' success like the fact he's stranding runners at the highest rate in the league, him keeping this up will be a crucial part of his chase for his first Cy Young.

The odds are he won't be an easy choice for the award even if he pulls it off. There's still likely to be a crowd of good candidates, some of whom will have better peripherals than him.

But any time a guy can get to the end of the season with a sparkling record, low ERA and high innings count, he has a shot. And for Hamels, this is probably the best shot at the award he's had yet.

Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs unless otherwise noted/linked.

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