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Yankees Potential Free Agent Target: Cole Hamels

After a comically short stint with the Braves, Cole Hamels is a free agent for the second time in as many years.

Atlanta Braves v Baltimore Orioles Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

Though rarely the case for highly touted pitching prospects, Cole Hamels has been both healthy and good more often than not in his career. Once the 17th overall pick in the 2002 MLB Draft, Hamels has made it through 15 years in the majors never throwing fewer than 140 innings, save for his rookie and most recent seasons. Until this past year, Hamels had been an extremely stable starting pitching option for more than a decade, eclipsing 200 innings eight times. Since 2006, when Hamels played his first full season with the Phillies, no one other than Justin Verlander has thrown more innings than Cole Hamels.

Hamels has been consistently solid on his way to accruing a nearly unparalleled volume of innings. Only once following his rookie season and before 2020 did Hamels post an ERA over four, and even then, he was hurt for much of that year (2009). With an athletic frame, a rubber left arm, and the craft to spin five pitches with relatively similar frequencies, Hamels smoothly transitioned from his days as the All-Star ace of the World Champion Phillies to one of the more reliable veterans in the majors.

Interestingly, the latter part of that Phillies team’s one-two starting pitching punch was Jamie Moyer, who at 45-years-old finished the 2008 season with a more than passable 117 ERA+. Hamels, if he took any notes from his seasons with Moyer, could remain serviceable in the near future, approaching age-37 before the start of next season.

Following a broken hand from a bar-fight and other elbow and shoulder maladies in the minors—as evidenced by his career innings total— Hamels had been seldom injured over the course of his big-league career. However, that trend came to an abrupt halt in 2020. Hamels entered Braves spring training with a sore shoulder that had nagged him since September of 2019, and had been reaggravated during an at-home workout in the off-season. Hamels’ condition declined through training camp, eventually developing tendonitis, and he was placed on the 45-day injured list.

When he finally returned, he lasted just ten outs and three earned runs by the time he was yanked for his 75-pitch limit. Before his second of three potential regular season starts, he informed the training staff that his shoulder was again too weak to pitch, ending an expensive and short tenure in Atlanta.

Hamels’ diminished fastball velocity bore out his claims of shoulder weakness, as his average 88.4 mph 2020 four-seamer was by far the slowest of his career, losing a full three mph from his 2019 mark. Though Hamels’ 2020 sample of 11 batted balls is much too small to draw any conclusions about his performance, his margin for error will narrow as long as he’s unable to reach back and break 90 mph. Making matters worse is the fact that between 2016 and 2019, when Hamels posted a combined ERA of 3.74 and an ERA+ of 122, his FIP was a 4.28, and his xERA never dropped below 4.22. Baseball Savant’s expression of xwOBA as runs per nine innings, xERA excludes defensive performance from its evaluation of a pitcher.

Hamels spent 2017, and part of 2018 in Texas with the Rangers, before playing the next season and a half in Chicago for the Cubs. According to Outs Above Average, the Rangers had the 15th- and ninth-best defenses in baseball in ’17 and ’18, while the Cubs backed up Hamels with the game’s eighth- and sixth-best defenses in ’18 and ’19. More likely than not, Hamels’ xERA-ERA differential and solidly rated collection of gloves behind him suggest that he benefitted from his defenses.

Not only would Hamels be a prime candidate for some regression as pertaining to his luck, but he’d sacrifice the quality of defense that had previously fielded his batted balls. The Yankees just concluded the ’19 and ’20 seasons as the owners of the fourth and third worst defense in baseball, respectively. If Hamels were to come to New York, there’s no reason to suspect he’d be able to replicate his positive ERA to xERA disparity with such a porous defense behind him, lest major personnel changes were to take place.

As a 37-year-old veteran with one of the longest track records of success in the majors, Cole Hamels deserves a flyer somewhere. However, with his questionable health, a weakened fastball, and an absence of defensive wizardry in the Bronx, he’s no longer the middle of the rotation stalwart of years’ past, and he’s an especially poor fit with a Yankee team in desperate need of a starting pitcher they can trust.