September 15, 2010

The maturation of Cole Hamels.

In the 2008 playoffs, Cole Hamels was 4-0 with a 1.80 ERA. He was by far the best pitcher in the postseason, even taking home World Series MVP, and many people thought he'd use the 2009 regular season to take the next step into pitching superstardom.

But it was not to be. Whether the culprit was the Verducci Effect, immaturity or just an ill-timed letdown season, Cole was not the pitcher we'd seen in October. 10-11 with a 4.32 ERA, he was the picture of inconsistency, and questions began to abound about his two-pitch repertoire growing inadequate after a few go-arounds against the 29 other teams.

But thanks to a one-year-old son, a dog in a backpack and Roy Halladay taking the reigns as "Phillies ace," Cole Hamels seems reinvigorated in 2010. He's only 11-10, but this isn't 1992 and we're not living and dying on wins and losses. When the Phillies brought in Roy Oswalt, everyone said they had three aces...and they were right. Hamels may be a step down from Halladay, but there's no question he's up there with Oswalt as one of the top-10 starters in the National League, and maybe top-15 in all of baseball.

His numbers support my vaguely focused ramblings. Cole has a 3.01 ERA, 13th in the National League. After last night's 13-strikeout gem, he's now tied for second in K's with Clayton Kershaw and...Roy Halladay. He has the sixth-best strikeout-per-walk ratio, behind Mat Latos and Adam Wainwright and ahead of Oswalt. His K/9 is also sixth-best in the NL, ahead of Halladay, Ubaldo Jimenez, Wainwright and Oswalt. His ERA+, which is adjusted for a pitcher's ballpark, is 10th in the NL, ahead of Oswalt and Chris Carpenter. His WHIP is 11th.

Perhaps most importantly, he's 10th in innings, impressive after a year of fans and media alike calling him "soft" and questioning his desire to take the ball. I don't know if Halladay inspired him, or if another top-of-the-rotation starter took the pressure off, or if Cole just figured it out himself, but he's become the kind of pitcher we love in Philadelphia: a horse, a guy who goes out there and just pitches every fifth day.

He's only 26, but he's showing the maturation we all prayed was coming. Cole hasn't gotten frustrated when the team around him comes up short, which was a Hamels trademark in previous years. Despite having the seventh-lowest run support totals amongst pitchers with over 160 innings, Cole hasn't flinched in the face of adversity. He's said all the right things and showed all the right body language on the mound. It seems like he's finally realized that if he goes out there and pitches his heart out, a) the team will win more than it loses and b) he'll get the recognition and respect he deserves anyway.

And I may be jinxing Hamels here, but I love his mechanics. They're smooth as silk, and he doesn't throw any serious breaking pitches that could rip his arm from its socket. Minus a few aches and pains here and there, he's shrugged off early-career indications that he'd be injury-prone and fragile. He's given the Phillies 931 innings since his debut, an average of 217-per-season, and he shows no signs of breaking down.

Basically, what I'm trying to say is that Cole has answered his critics. His step back has been followed by a huge step forward, and he's become a elite starting pitcher. Whether he takes that final leap into the upper echelon, where the Santanas and Sabathias and Halladays of the world reside (and win awards), remains to be seen. But for 2010, with the two Roys by his side, all we need is for Cole to be Cole.

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