Last August, while drinking margaritas and waiting for the start of the Phillies-Giants game, I tweeted this:
Hamels’s record was 7-5 at the time, and we were two days removed from witnessing the triumphant start of the Cliff Lee era. I was hoping that Lee’s performance would inspire Cole and help him return to his 2008 form, but I was also skeptical given his inconsistent season, so I took the temperature of my Tweeps to see what they thought. Plus, I really wanted to make a Cole-carrying-a-puppy-in-a-backpack joke.
He would go on to pitch five innings, giving up six earned runs on ten hits while walking and striking out two in the loss. The consensus on Twitter was that puppy-carrying Cole showed up to AT&T Park that day.
We all know what happened next. Hamels ended the regular season with a 10-11 record and an ERA of 4.32. His postseason was abysmal, going 1-2 with a bloated 7.58 ERA. What a difference a year (and the banquet circuit) made.
Frustrated after his World Series Game 3 loss to New York, he touched off a media firestorm by saying “I can’t wait for it to end. It’s been mentally draining…” in reference to his ’09 season. He later clarified his statements, but the reactionary Philly faithful still questioned his desire to win.
The finger-pointing started immediately after the last out of Game 6. Everyone wondered what happened to King Cole. Did his lack of preparation in the offseason cause him to falter in ’09? Was he a victim of the “Verducci-effect”, which claims that a pitcher’s performance is adversely affected when their number of innings pitched is increased from the previous year? Did he spend more time making crappy commercials for New Era and Comcast than honing his craft? All of these factors may have contributed to his decline last season, but it was also the first time in his career that he had faced adversity. He didn’t handle it well.
Hamels began slowly in ‘09. In his first start of the year, he allowed 11 hits and seven earned runs on 81 pitches in 3.2 innings against the Rockies. His velocity averaged only 86 MPH that day, with some pitches bottoming out in the mid-60s. In his next start against the Padres, he’d give up five runs in six innings, including three homers. Cole quickly went from WFC to WTF?!
There were flashes of brilliance that made me believe that the Cole of Old had returned, such as his masterful 97-pitch, complete game shutout of the Dodgers in June. But all too often, Cole would get frustrated and start to unravel once things didn’t go his way. A botched double play ball in the NLCS would lead to a Manny Ramirez home run. A strike that wasn’t called against Mark Teixeira in Game 3 of the World Series would result in a momentum-changing five earned runs, including a camera-assisted homer by A-Rod. So on the day of his first start of the 2010 season, while others wonder if his work ethic and velocity have improved, I’m worried about his ability to control his emotions on the mound. Which Cole Hamels will show up this season: King Cole of ’08 or Puppy-Emo Cole of ’09?
Hamels said all of the right things about living and learning and simplifying the game in mid-February. Pitching coach Rich Dubee praised Cole’s offseason regiment, and said that he was “far beyond where he’s ever been in spring training.” His velocity was much improved since last year, and he added a cutter to his arsenal while trying to improve his curveball.
Numbers-wise, Hamels’s spring training was a mixed bag of successes and setbacks. Midway through spring training, Cole posted a promising ERA of 1.69, but his next three Grapefruit League starts would be more difficult. He allowed seven runs (six earned) on nine hits in four innings against the Yankees, five runs (all earned) on seven hits in 6.1 innings against the Twins, and three runs on eight hits in three innings against the Pirates. His ERA ballooned to 6.00. Cole attributed these rocky performances to working on pitches, and insisted that he felt great and was ready for the season to start.
So his velocity is back, and he’s working on locating his spots and his new pitches, but has Cole turned the corner on keeping his emotions in check? He gave up a first pitch home run to the Blue Jays’ Jose Bautista in his first spring training start, but then settled down to allow just one more hit in his two innings of work. Five days later, he would give up another first pitch homer to Bautista in the fourth inning, but he was pulled immediately, so we don’t know how he would have reacted to that. Against Detroit, Cole pitched five innings of two-hit ball despite a Ryan Howard error in the second that led to a run.
There were no reports out of Clearwater of Hamels showing up his infielders or stomping around on the mound, and he remained upbeat and optimistic throughout the spring. Will this trend continue once the games matter? For the Phillies sake it had better, or their hopes of a third consecutive World Series appearance will be dashed. Cole is primed to have a comeback year, but only if he can control his command and his emotions. Errors and blown calls will happen. It’s how Cole recovers from them that will determine if he’s an ace or an also-ran.
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