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Why the Yankees should think twice about trading for Cole Hamels

The crushing loss of Jordan Montgomery doesn’t mean the Yankees should panic and deal for a declining veteran stopgap.

MLB: Texas Rangers at New York Yankees Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sports

The Yankees could probably use some starting pitching. The disappointing news regarding Jordan Montgomery’s Tommy John surgery has left the Yankees a little undermanned. Domingo German was tabbed to be a temporary replacement and has been inconsistent. With Montgomery out long-term, the team will surely be looking to upgrade on German.

The name that immediately jumps to mind is Cole Hamels. The Hamels-to-New-York rumors will surely fly as trade season heats up, and we’ve already speculated here that he could be a good fit. It almost seems like a layup: the Yankees, in the thick of contention, use their prospect and financial muscle to add a big name like Hamels.

It shouldn’t be, though. Hamels does have a starry shine. He has the pedigree, in the form of a career 3.38 ERA, four All Star nods, and a World Series MVP. He even has solid numbers at first glance this year, with a 3.63 ERA and 74 strikeouts in 72 innings. But Hamels’ good surface numbers and flashy name obscure a real physical decline that should make the Yankees wary.

It feels almost cliche at this point to point out a veteran’s decline in velocity. Yet velocity is still important, especially so for veterans who are on the precipice of losing it. Check out Hamels’ velocity on fastballs over the past four seasons, courtesy of Brooks Baseball:

The trend is obvious, and it is worrying. In the span of just a couple years, Hamels has lost two or three ticks on his hard stuff. Now, older pitchers can lose velocity and maintain effectiveness if they manage to adapt. If you looked just at Hamels’ ERA’s, you might even figure he had done just that. Dig deeper, however, and Hamels’ apparent physical decline has coincided with a sharp decline in overall performance.

Hamels was traded from the Phillies to the Rangers prior to the 2015 trade deadline, and he actually has eerily similar run prevention numbers before and after. He has an identical park and league adjusted 124 ERA+ with both the Phillies and Rangers. On the other hand, take a look at his trends when it comes to the league and park adjusted versions of ERA estimators, like FIP-, xFIP-, and DRA- (note: lower is better):

Cole Hamels 2015-2018

Year FIP- xFIP- DRA-
Year FIP- xFIP- DRA-
2015 Phillies 82 85 74
2015 Rangers 92 88 80
2016 92 91 93
2017 103 110 116
2018 125 101 148

None of these more advanced metrics are perfect or tell the whole story, but they all do tell a cohesive one: a story of a player in decline. By any metric other than ERA, Hamels has sharply declined exactly in step with his loss of velocity.

Now, Hamels appears to know he’s shifting into old-man mode. He’s taken a tact very similar to the one CC Sabathia took as Sabathia himself aged into a crafty lefty. Hamels no longer pounds the zone like he once did. After throwing pitches in the zone well over half the time a decade ago, Hamels’ zone rate is just 39%, per FanGraphs, easily a career low.

The only problem is that hitters aren’t chasing out-of-zone pitches any more than usual during Hamels’ career. So while his strikeout rates haven’t fallen, his walk rates have risen over the past few years. Not only that, his groundball rate, over 50% with the Phillies in 2015, is just 42% this year. His hard contact rate has risen each of the past three years. Essentially, Hamels has shifted out of the zone in response to his decline, but hasn’t mastered the art of getting batters to chase, and has also achieved a worse batted ball profile when he comes in the zone.

In fact, a bit of luck in spite of that batted ball profile probably is what’s keeping Hamels afloat. He has a .253 BABIP this year after posting a .251 BABIP last year, despite running league-average BABIP’s in his prime. This doesn’t jibe with the increase in hard contact, or the increased exit velocities and launch angles Hamels’ has yielded the past three years, per Statcast. He simply might just be getting some good fortune.

Really, Hamels does resemble our old friend Sabathia. He’s just not as good at being Sabathia as Sabathia is. Sabathia has turned painting the edges and keeping opposing hitters off balance with a deep repertoire into an art. Like Sabathia, Hamels has foresaken his weak fastball in favor of a cutter he throws about 30% of the time. Hamels also throws his curve and change more often, much like Sabathia relies on his slider and change.

However, according to Statcast, Sabathia paints the edges of the zone more often, generates weak contact more often, and throws pitches in the middle of the zone less often. Baseball Prospectus’ command score, which evaluates a pitcher’s ability to steal strikes on the edges and avoid the middle of the plate, ranks Sabathia in the top ten, while Hamels rates as below average.

Basically, Hamels looks a bit like a knockoff Sabathia, only if knockoffs cost far more than the real versions (Hamels’ salary for 2018 is $23.5 million). Hamels is in physical decline, and every measure of performance other than run prevention reflects that reality. If the Yankees can get Hamels in a salary dump, he’d make a fine veteran addition to plug a hole. If the Yankees need to give up real prospect value to bring in Hamels, they should think twice about whether his shiny surface numbers tell the whole story.