Everyone loves a good comeback story, and Ian Hamilton’s is especially compelling. After a breakout 2018 season in the minors, he appeared on the verge of establishing himself in the White Sox bullpen. But a car accident left him off of the Opening Day roster, and while rehabbing the issues wrought by the crash, the unthinkable happened: a foul ball struck him in the face, causing injuries that severely impacted his quality of life and nearly ended his career.
Finally in good health again to start the 2023 season, he enjoyed immediate success. Through his first 15 games, he struck out 28 in 21.1 innings, allowing just three runs and two barrels (neither of which was a homer). The key to his dominance was a unique weapon dubbed “the slambio” due to its distinctive blend of slider and changeup (or “cambio” in Spanish) characteristics. The rest of the season, however, Hamilton dealt with groin issues and diminished effectiveness. Still, his year on the whole was a major success.
2023 Statistics: 39 games, 58 IP, 2.64 ERA, 2.82 FIP, 3.26 xFIP, 10.71 K/9, 4.03 BB/9, 1.1 fWAR
2024 Contract Status: Not yet arbitration eligible
Hamilton’s health status remained unchanged through Opening Day for the first time in years, but it wasn’t the only aspect of his game that stayed constant. Previously, each organization he played for had tried to alter the slambio to either take advantage of its outlier spin and movement or erase it altogether. The Yankees, however, told the reliever not to change a thing. In the end, according to Statcast’s run value, the offering was the 92nd-most valuable per pitch among the 1,859 pitches thrown at least 100 times.
The pitch maintained its effectiveness even after Hamilton’s groin issues arose. The issues first cropped up on May 16th, when the reliever had to enter the game on short notice due to Domingo Germán’s sticky stuff ejection. Hamilton returned at the end of June, only to be placed back on the IL with the same injury two months later. Still, from May 16th onward, the slambio accrued more than half of its seasonal run value.
However, Hamilton’s overall effectiveness did diminish. After the initial groin strain, his ERA rose to 3.44 over 36.2 frames the rest of the way. His strikeout rate also dropped and his walk rate grew as he induced fewer chases and whiffs. Per Stuff+, the quality of his pitch shapes didn’t diminish, but run value indicates that his fastballs were much less effective. It turns out that hitters learned to lay off of the slambio a bit, swinging at the heaters more often and doing more damage as a result:
Ian Hamilton Swing Rates, Pre- and Post-Injury
So, hitters have seemingly improved their pitch-recognition against Hamilton. But they’re still swinging at more than half of the slambios they see, whether that’s because Hamilton is still getting ahead in the count and they’re forced to fight them off or because there’s a limit to how well they can recognize the pitch. Either way, regardless of how well they’re seeing the slambio, when they swing they’re still failing to do damage against it. Perhaps Hamilton should throw it even more than the 54.2 percent of the time he turned to it in 2023.
Even if the post-injury version of Hamilton is closer to his true-talent level, he’s still a solid reliever, and he still had a great year overall. He’s also under control for another five years; while he’s already 28 years old, if he can stay healthy, he should remain productive — even if his velocity decreases. After all, maybe an eventual velocity decline is what will convince him to turn to the slambio even more, given that the pitch’s effectiveness hinges more on its movement and spin than its speed. Look for Hamilton to continue to ascend the Yankees’ bullpen hierarchy in 2024.