More mature Hamels puts '09 behind him
Lefty learns from struggles, plans to keep emotions in check
CLEARWATER, Fla. -- It is remarkable how quickly things change in baseball.
One autumn, Cole Hamels is hoisting the World Series MVP trophy along with accepting the keys to a new Chevy Camaro, his prize for dominating the Tampa Bay Rays in the 2008 World Series. The next autumn, he is squandering a 3-0 lead in Game 3 of the World Series, following disappointing performances in the regular season, National League Division Series and NL Championship Series.
One spring, he is the trendy pick to be the NL Cy Young Award winner. The next spring, fans are wondering if he can be an ace again.
Hamels seems OK being a question mark in 2010.
"Any time you're the underdog, it's a little bit easier to focus and really take care of your own business instead of being worried about what other people expect out of you," Hamels said following Thursday's workout at the Carpenter Complex.
Hamels went 15-5 with a 3.39 ERA in 2007 and 14-10 with a 3.09 ERA in 2008, but went 10-11 with a 4.32 ERA in '09. But his regular-season numbers aren't what stood out. It was his postseason numbers. He went 4-0 with a 1.80 ERA in five postseason starts in '08, but 1-2 with a 7.58 ERA in four postseason starts in '09.
The young lefty stomped around the mound when things did not go his way.
He snapped at the ball with his glove after a home run.
He lost his cool.
Phillies pitching coach Rich Dubee said a lack of composure was Hamels' biggest problem last season.
"You live and learn," Hamels said. "You sometimes need to have games go the way you don't like, because it lets you know that this game is hard. It's not going to be easy. Even though you might have games where everything goes well, you'll have games where times are tough. You really have to learn a little more about yourself. You have to bear down. I think that's where you have to ... simplify the game instead of making it out to be something that's even harder. I think that's what I did. I made it a lot harder than the game should be."
Hamels enters this spring with a clean slate and is rededicated to his craft. He worked hard in the offseason, so much so that Dubee said Hamels' arm has never been in better shape.
"When he came in [last spring], he was throwing 81, 82 [mph]," Dubee said. "You watch him long toss right now, he's far beyond where he's ever been in Spring Training. And he deserves a lot of credit for that. Because he was faced with a challenge. You need to start throwing. You need to get yourself ready. You need to be able to come to Spring Training where some work can be done.
"Being the perfectionist that he is, he took it to heart, and he did the work that he had to do. So he's in a much better position right now. He could have gone home and sulked again and said, 'Oh, what do they know?' He didn't do that. He went home and did what he had to do."
And that is why the Phils think Hamels can be the same guy who owned the '08 postseason, which would give Philadelphia one of the best 1-2 punches in baseball, with he and Roy Halladay.
"I think he's going to have a big year," manager Charlie Manuel said. "I don't see any reason he can't come back and be as good as he ever was. We talk about him having a bad year. I don't think he had a bad year. To me, he had an off, freakish year."
|"When you have a lot more expectations of yourself, people have a lot more expectations of you. I kind of let that get to me. You become a little more emotional, because you want it a little bit more instead of just relaxing and letting it happen, because I know what I'm capable of doing. It's just feeling confident with myself and not letting everything else really affect me."|
|-- Cole Hamels|
It was a freakish year that puzzled a lot of people. Manuel said he got a call recently from Jim Kaat, who said he was having dinner recently with Whitey Ford and Bill Mazeroski. Even they were talking about Hamels.
There were two issues at the crux of Hamels' problems:
He didn't have a reliable third pitch.
He lost his cool.
Hamels has a good fastball and one of the best changeups in the game. He dominated hitters with those pitches, but hitters made adjustments and Hamels could not throw his curveball for strikes often enough to get hitters off his changeup.
So he got hit.
There had been plenty of talk this offseason how Hamels might try to throw a cutter or slider and ditch the curveball. Hamels has thrown a cutter this offseason -- he said he got tips from Cliff Lee, Steve Carlton and John Wetteland -- but Dubee said Thursday they will focus this spring on improving his curveball instead.
"When he throws the curveball and has command of it and throws it for strikes, his game goes pretty quick, because he is able to hide his changeup," Dubee said. "We have time this spring. His arm is in much better shape to throw more curveballs. When your arm is not in shape and you don't have arm speed, you can't come out and really apply yourself and be able to work on anything."
The cutter might be shelved for now.
But what won't be shelved is the emphasis on Hamels' demeanor. Veterans marveled at his poise during his rookie season in 2006. They said he behaved like a 15-year veteran. And he continued to look like that through the '08 World Series. But once things started to go wrong in '09, Hamels lost his head.
He got ejected in June in Toronto.
He rolled his eyes when teammates made errors.
He said during the NLCS that it was hard not to get upset when errors lead to a higher ERA.
"The biggest problem with Cole last year, in my opinion, is he pitched with a lot of anger, with himself mostly," Dubee said. "He's such a perfectionist that you don't pitch with anger, and he really wasn't nearly as focused as he was the two previous years. He expects a lot out of himself, not unlike most guys in that clubhouse, but your expectations of what you want and the way you approach it are very, very important, and his approach wasn't very good last year."
It seemed like one bad pitch, one bad hit or one error set him off.
"That's where focus comes into play -- not getting upset by a flare base hit, not getting upset by a base on balls. Not getting upset by something," Dubee said. "Understand that you still have to execute a pitch. He got caught up in a lot of stuff because, again, what's the one thing he says about every game? He expects to pitch a no-hitter -- every game. When you pitch with those expectations and it doesn't go according to plan, then you get angry. It just doesn't work.
"The success won't come back until the demeanor changes."
Said Hamels: "When you have a lot more expectations of yourself, people have a lot more expectations of you. I kind of let that get to me. You become a little more emotional, because you want it a little bit more instead of just relaxing and letting it happen, because I know what I'm capable of doing. It's just feeling confident with myself and not letting everything else really affect me."
Dubee said he has addressed his concerns with Hamels in the past, which included watching video of his behavior, and will again in the future.
"If Cole just gets back to being the guy with the same presence, the same mound demeanor he had the [previous] two years, Cole Hamels will be fine," Dubee added.
Hamels thinks he will be fine, too. He said he never stopped throwing this offseason, which helped him enter camp in great shape.
He also said he learned about handling his expectations.
"I still feel that I'm young in the baseball world, and there's always things that I need to learn as much as anybody," Hamels said. "But there's always points in anybody's career when you have to take it all in and try to learn from your positives and the negatives that come with being a big league pitcher."
Todd Zolecki is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.