10/02/09 10:00 AM EST
Path of the Pros: Cole Hamels
Progressed swiftly despite Minors career prone to injury
By Benjamin Hill / MLB.com
And the numbers are spectacular -- over 36 starts spanning four levels of play, the left-hander went 14-4 with a 1.43 ERA. He struck out 276 batters (against just 74 walks) over 201 innings, and he held opponents to a .174 average against him.
There was just one problem. Those statistics were accumulated over four seasons, as a litany of ailments prevented Hamels from regularly taking the mound every five days. Left-elbow injuries limited him to four starts in 2004, and a preseason bar fight and back injuries resulted in just six starts the following year.
But the flip side of the equation is this: In all likelihood, Hamels wouldn't even be a Phillie if it wasn't for an injury. The highly touted California native broke his left arm prior to his junior year of high school and missed the subsequent season (2001). He returned to dominance as a senior, but many teams were reluctant to draft him with their top pick, fearful that such a debilitating injury would be impossible to fully recover from. Thus, Hamels was still available when it came time for the Phils to make their first selection of the 2002 First-Year Player Draft. He was the 17th overall selection. "If he hadn't had that injury, there would have been no way that he gets to us at 17," said Phillies scout Darrell Conner, the man responsible for signing Hamels. "Absolutely no way. You can grade him how you want to, but he was a lefty that was solid-to-plus across the board. I don't think anyone who saw him pitch as an amateur ever saw him pitch badly."
Conner should know, as the southern California-based scout watched Hamels intently throughout his senior year.
"The first time I saw him was at a fall baseball game, his first outing after his injury," recalled Conner. "It was just a one-inning stint, but he was everything we look for. A tall, loose, projectable kid who threw strikes and repeated his delivery. ... There were a handful of scouts there, and when there's something going on that excites us, it gets real quiet. And when Cole pitched that day, there were not many words said. I don't think I missed another outing after that, to be honest with you."
As a result of Conner's glowing reports, a steady procession of Phillies' player development personnel made the trek to see Hamels pitch. And soon, the consensus was reached that he would be the team's first-round Draft pick if he was, indeed, still available.
"[Phillies scouting director] Marti Wolever was the most instrumental guy in all of this," said Conner. "It was his first draft as scouting director, so in the end it was his call."
And early returns were phenomenal as Hamels made his professional debut the next season with Class A Lakewood. There, he went 6-1 with an 0.84 ERA over 13 starts.
"Very quickly you could see that he had a very bright future," said 1985 World Series hero Buddy Biancalana, who served as the BlueClaws manager in 2003. "There he was, 19 years old, and already I felt that he could have had success at the Major League level. I'm not saying that he should have been there, but he could of. His fastball had great life, his changeup was tremendous and he had a pretty good breaking ball to go along with it. ... He was a rather quiet guy, but carried himself well. He was always very confident, very composed."
The next two seasons were injury-riddled, but Hamels hit the ground running in 2006 and never looked back. He opened the season with Class A Advanced Clearwater, and after four dominating starts received a promotion to Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. He was even more dominant there, racking up 14 strikeouts in his debut and following that up with a two-hit shutout. After just one more start -- at which point his ERA was 0.39 -- he received the callup to the Phillies.
The rest is history. Hamels won 38 games over his first three big league seasons, setting the stage for his National League Championship Series and World Series MVPs in the 2008 postseason. Clearly, the Phillies' calculated risk-taking in the 2002 Draft has paid huge dividends.
"If another club had thought the way Marti did and taken him at No. 14 or 15, then who knows who we would have gotten instead," said Conner. "It's funny how things work out."
2003: Made pro debut with Class A Lakewood and went 6-1 with 0.84 ERA over 13 starts, striking out 115 over just 74 2/3 innings of work. Received promotion to Class A Advanced Clearwater and went 0-2 over five starts despite a solid 2.73 ERA.
2004: Lost most of the season to injury, but pitched well when healthy. Made four starts for Clearwater and went 1-0 with a 1.13 ERA.
2005: Another campaign marred by injury, but once again excelled when healthy enough to pitch. Went 2-0 with a 2.25 ERA over three starts for Clearwater, then received a promotion to Double-A Reading. Made three more starts there, compiling a 2-0 record and 2.37 ERA.
2006: The year where it all clicked. Hamels made four starts with Clearwater (opening the season there so that he would not be exposed to cold weather) before receiving a promotion to Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. After three exceedingly dominant starts there (2-0 record, 0.39 ERA), he got the callup to Philly.
Benjamin Hill is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.