You almost certainly didn’t know who Ian Hamilton was before the season started. You probably do now. The 28-year-old righthander had fewer than 15 appearances at the major league level before breaking camp with the Yankees last month. Now, just barely six weeks into the season, he’s already cementing himself as an electric late-inning option in an ever-evolving bullpen.
Signed as a minor league free agent in January, the Yankees are Hamilton’s sixth professional organization since being drafted by the White Sox in the 11th round of the 2016 draft out of Washington State. Soon after being drafted, Hamilton quickly became one of Chicago’s better pitching prospects, ranking 21st in the organization in 2018 and 14th in 2019 according to MLB Pipeline, with Baseball Prospectus having him at 13 entering the latter season. He got there on the strength of a 2.55 ERA over 109 appearances along the minor league ladder, culminating in a 10-game cameo with the big club at the end of the 2018 season, where he allowed four runs on six hits and two walks (with five strikeouts) in eight innings.
Things unraveled 2019, when Hamilton was the victim of some extraordinary bad luck. He began the season on the IL with shoulder trouble stemming from a car accident, and later missed the majority of the season after being struck in the face with a foul ball, winding up with a 9.82 ERA in just 16 Triple-A appearances and only four outings with Chicago. The following year, he joined the White Sox early in the 2020 season, only to once again hit the injured list with shoulder issues. Facing a roster crunch upon his return from the IL, he was designated for assigned in September.
After being claimed on waivers but quickly designated for assignment without throwing a pitch by Seattle and Philadelphia, Hamilton wound up in the Twins organization, for whom he pitched in one game in 2021, spending the rest of that season, as well as 2022, pitching for their Triple-A squad, and then Cleveland’s, after being traded to the Guardians for Sandy León last summer. Failing to crack their big league roster, he was granted free agency at the conclusion of last season, leading him to the aforementioned contract with the Yankees in January.
How, then, does a fringy reliever with a multi-year injury history that five teams gave up on within a three-year period become a multi-inning monster with a 1.35 ERA over his first 20 innings of the season? Surprisingly, even though his four-seamer clocks in at nearly 96 mph on average — and his sinker a half-tick lower — the Yankees have empowered him by throwing his slider 55% of the time.
It seems like the Yankees front office and player development staff loves nothing more than finding pitchers with at least one really weird or unique trait that they can use to help the player flourish. In Hamilton’s case, that’s his slider, which is completely unremarkable by just about all movement measures and other properties, but spins at just barely over 1500 RPM, easily the slowest in the league. It’s unorthodox, but it’s working spectacularly: Hitters have just a .167 wOBA (albeit with a still-excellent .243 expected wOBA), and it’s drawing whiffs on more than 40 percent of swings. Between him and Jimmy Cordero, it seems like Brian Cashman should just pick a name the list of recently-released White Sox relievers the next time the team needs a new man in the bullpen.
Throwing the slider 55 percent of the time may also help his fastballs play up. While his four-seamer has significantly out-performed its expected outcomes — we’re looking at an outstanding .230 wOBA contrasted with a less stellar .354 expected wOBA — but his sinker has seemingly earned the excellent results its gotten accumulating three runs worth of extra outs (according to Baseball Savant) despite having only been thrown 60 times to this point, just 19.2 percent of his total pitches.
Like his slider, it’s not an extraordinary sinker in terms of movement, with a pretty generic arm slot and equal-parts drop and arm-side run. Its location and situational usage, however, have been excellent.
That might look like too many pitches right down the middle, but a closer look reveals that most of those middle-middle sinkers came on zero-strike counts, when many hitters are unlikely to swing. When he has a strike on the hitter, meanwhile, he’s been outstanding at pounding the parts off the plate inside to right-handed hitters — he doesn’t throw it against lefties — and below the zone, where the pitch starts at a strike but lands in a spot that engineers a lot of weak contact.
Similarly, when he needs to show some hard stuff to a lefty, he’s been quite good at spotting his four-seamer (also nothing special, movement-wise) at the top of the zone and above it, where lefties are likely to chase, while doing a good job of avoiding too many mistakes down the middle.
It’s still a little bit erratic, as high-octane relievers are wont to be, but executing a fastball-sinker combo like that is enough to make a good reliever even with an unremarkable breaking ball or offspeed pitch, and Hamilton’s slider isn’t unremarkable. The result? Another diamond in the rough for Matt Blake and the Yankees pitching development staff. As many things have gone wrong this season, this is one thing that’s going very right, and we have all the reason to believe it won’t stop any time soon, even when the Yankees’ bad luck does.