It’s still hard to wrap my head around—as no doubt it is for you, fair reader. The Baltimore freakin’ OriLOLes won 93 games in 2012 and made the bloody playoffs. How did this happen? Wasn’t it supposed to be the Blue Jays who would take that step in the next few years? But the god damn Orioles! The team who hadn’t had a winning season since that episode of Friends were the gang goes to the beach house and Ross falls asleep reading that long letter from Rachel when they very briefly get back together. WE WERE ON A BREAK! You know, that whole thing.
We were all making fun of the Orioles last winter when they were kicked out of Korea for scouting and signing players illegally. Remember that? That team nearly took out the Yankees in the ALDS.
Of course, we know the main reason the Orioles looked so good in 2012: Their record in one-run and extra inning games. Baltimore’s Pythagorean record was just 82-80—an eleven game difference from their actual record—the largest such spread in baseball. They set Major League marks for their records in one-run games (29-9) and extra inning games (16-2). Although many in the mainstream media would like to pin their success in such situations to Buck Showalter’s calming hand or the team’s hustle and heart, we know that it has much more to do with luck and random variance than anything else. If the Orioles play that exact season over again, those records probably regress to right around the .500-mark—maybe slightly above considering they did have a rather fantastic bullpen in 2012 (another thing that often relies more on luck than anything else). Regress those records to 21-17 in one-run games and 10-8 in extra inning games and suddenly their record looks a lot more like their Pythagorean record and we’re not talking about the Orioles as a playoff team.
Another reason for Baltimore’s success win 2012 was starting pitcher Jason Hammel. Hammel missed almost all of the final two-and-a-half months of the season with knee problems which had been nagging him all year, but he still posted a career high in WARP at 2.7 (Baseball Prospectus’ wins above replacement metric) despite only making 20 starts and throwing 118 innings. Before succumbing to the injury he was Baltimore’s best pitcher by far.
Part of the reason may have been his escape from the thin air of the Rockies which would not only serve to keep the ball from venturing over the fence, but also would give his breaking balls more bite. But more significantly, Hammel added a sinker to his repertoire in 2012.
As you can see from the charts above, Hammel split the use of his fastball from previous years with his newly developed sinker and also decreased the use of his changeup in favour of his slider—which does appear to have had more movement than in previous years. There’s also the increase in velocity across the board by almost a full mile-per hour. All of this helped Hammel achieve a career high 22.9% K-rate (his career total is just 16.7%). He maintained a consistent walk-rate and kept the ball in the ballpark by increasing his groundball-rate by almost 10 full percentage points.
Although it should be expected that Hammel’s uptick in velocity will regress over the next few years (he’s 29—that’s what happens once you edge toward the big 3-0) which may affect his K-rate slightly, his groundball numbers should be sustainable providing the sinker continues to work the way it did in 2012. He’s able to throw said sinker with almost no drop-off in velocity from his four-seamer which is not only rare, but leads to it being undetectable by the batter until it’s too late.
Hammel’s batted-ball average and his strand-rate (two stats which can be indicators of luck if they vary wildly from the league average) were slightly better than his career marks but were right in line with the rest of the league so there shouldn’t be much of a regression there either. All of this is meant to say that Hammel’s success appears to have not been a fluke—near as I can tell—which means he should be able to come close to replicating his 2012 numbers.
The question for him is health. Although a knee injury is less scary for a pitcher than an arm injury, they can still cause chronic and lingering problems (trust me, I can say that first hand). The good news is that Hammel has never really suffered from any serious arm problems so if the surgery performed on his knee last summer solves the problem, 200 innings should be well within his reach. If he can replicate what he did last year in 20 starts over 32 starts, he’s a four-to-five win pitcher—in other words a very good number two.
The Orioles will almost certainly regress next season unless they make drastic improvements to their roster this winter, but don’t expect Hammel to experience the same sort of regression. Praise be with you, Mr. Hammel.