Once the Cubs picked up Cole Hamels' option for the upcoming campaign -- a move made only days into the offseason -- the veteran lefty was able to push any thoughts of free agency out of his mind.Hamels' offseason focus could be centered solely on continuing to harness and hone
Once the Cubs picked up Cole Hamels' option for the upcoming campaign -- a move made only days into the offseason -- the veteran lefty was able to push any thoughts of free agency out of his mind.
Hamels' offseason focus could be centered solely on continuing to harness and hone the adjustments he made down the stretch with the North Siders last year. Beyond that, the pitcher felt his time in Chicago last season, combined with the knowledge that he would still be suiting up for the club in 2019, would allow him to more confidently step forward as a clubhouse leader this year.
"I've been in this game a long time, so I think that's where I need to be," Hamels said during Cubs Convention last month. "That's kind of the role that's directed toward you if you play this game long enough. That's kind of where you fit, so I understand that. I've had a couple years to really kind of do what I need to do in order to try to be that sort of leader.
"And now it's just, I guess, being a little bit more vocal instead of just letting that kind of play out on the field."
The Cubs' decision-makers made it clear from the jump this offseason that improving the leadership behind the scenes was a priority. Hamels clearly heard that message and wants to do his part to solidify that element of the roster.
It is on the field, however, where Hamels can make the more quantifiable impact, as Cubs fans saw after he was acquired for the final two months in 2018. In a dozen starts with the Cubs after coming over from the Rangers via trade, he turned in a 2.36 ERA with 74 strikeouts and 23 walks in 76 1/3 innings. Hamels had a 0.69 ERA in his first six outings with Chicago in August, following a five-start stretch with a 10.23 ERA to end his tenure with Texas.
This was not simply a change-of-scenery situation. A lot of work over several months led to Hamels' improved performance. An oblique injury in May 2017 led to mechanical problems that persisted late in that season and carried over into the early portion of '18. He was striding too far down the mound, flying open and his lower half and upper-body movements were out of sync.
"I was fighting it the whole season until I kind of looked at a little bit deeper film," Hamels explained. "And then, just really made some more drastic changes and went with it, and obviously it worked. So now this offseason, [I'm] training a little bit better, and obviously having better referencing for my mechanics."
The 35-year-old Hamels said a key component was to return to landing more closed off during his stride, creating a crossfire throwing motion.
"We saw it in the video. In Texas, we were trying to correct it," he said. "We just didn't go as drastic as I finally did before I came over [to the Cubs]. It was just little bits and pieces of trying and finally I just said, 'No.' It was a drastic change. I was sore from it, but it worked out and now things have gotten back to normal."
That adjustment can be partially identified through Hamels' horizontal release point. Per Statcast™, that was down to 2.14 feet, on average, for all pitches (from the center of the pitching rubber) in 2017, when Hamels' strikeout rate dropped to an uncharacteristically low 17.1 percent. Last year, the lefty's horizontal release point climbed to 2.75 feet, on average.
Hamels also saw a rise in velocity as he worked to implement his mechanical changes throughout last season. According to Statcast™, the lefty's four-seam velocity stood at 90.7 mph, on average, in the season's first month, but was up to 93.1 mph in August. Overall, Hamels' strikeout rate last year (23.3 percent) was right on par with 2016 (23.6 percent).
Hamels said he did not necessarily pitch through pain after coming back from the oblique issue in 2017, but he could definitely tell his delivery was out of sorts.
"You're just trying to get results," he said. "That was just kind of something that it didn't work out as well, but I knew something was wrong. I was just trying to pitch through it and get through the game, just because that's how I am and what I try to do. I'm glad I was able to at least figure something out, because that wasn't fun."
Jordan Bastian covers the Cubs for MLB.com. He previously covered the Indians from 2011-18 and the Blue Jays from 2006-10. Read his blog, Major League Bastian, follow him on Twitter @MLBastian and Facebook.