Here's a question to ponder today: Is Cole Hamels the American League Cy Young favorite?
Before the 2016 season began, the presumptive Cy Young Award race in the American League was filled with names of pitchers on the cusp of greatness like Chris Archer, Marcus Stroman, Carlos Carrasco, and Sonny Gray. Former winners Felix Hernandez, David Price, Corey Kluber, and Dallas Keuchel were on the short list, as well. Then there were guys like Chris Sale, Jose Quintana, Chris Tillman, and Jordan Zimmermann who many could have seen ascending to the top of the AL hierarchy.
They forgot about Cole Hamels.
The Rangers gave up a ton to acquire Cole Hamels almost exactly a year ago at the moment I'm writing this. He's long been one of the best pitchers in baseball and he's very much been a godsend for Texas. Folks have pondered before if he should be categorized as an ever elusive ace #1 starter or more of a #2 in a good rotation.
Perhaps that's a product of Hamels spending his formative years on a Philadelphia Phillies team with the likes of Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee in the same rotation. It's easy to forget now but Hamels was THE GUY atop the Philly rotation when they won the World Series in 2008. Lee wouldn't join the Phillies until the year after and Halladay would come a season after that.
Perhaps another reason Hamels has been considered more of a second-tier pitcher is he hasn't had that one career-defining year where he takes home hardware. Hamels has been consistently around 15 wins (career high 17), with an ERA near 3.15 for much of his career. That's been Hamels' main strength. Consistent greatness. You know what you're getting from Cole Hamels.
Hamels' best season probably came in 2011 when he went 14-9 with an ERA of 2.79 and a bWAR of 6.6. Still, Hamels finished a career high 5th in the Cy Young voting behind Clayton Kershaw, Halladay and Lee, and even Ian Kennedy. Hamels has appeared in the Cy Young voting three other times but never higher than 6th in the final tally.
Cole Hamels, by any definition, has been an ace for Texas. Not only do the Rangers win virtually every time he starts (26-7 in the 33 starts since his arrival), they win the big games with him on the mound. In game 162 last season, with the AL West still up for grabs, Hamels took the mound for Texas and spun a complete game against the Angels to clinch just the sixth division championship in franchise history.
In the ALDS, against Toronto, at Skydome, facing the most potent lineup in the league, Hamels allowed four runs in 13 1/3 innings over two games. The Rangers won one of those games, the other...well, just don't mention that one around Elvis Andrus.
Hamels was especially good in that Game 5 start where he allowed just two earned runs on five hits and struck out eight Blue Jays. It was the kind of start that, if not for a defensive meltdown behind him, should have added to his ace resume.
But a couple of starts in October doesn't make an ace and it certainly doesn't win you a Cy Young. The body of work for Hamels since he's come to Texas has been unreal.
This was Cole Hamels lasts start before 1-yr anniversary of trade. Totals: 33 starts, 19-3, 3.15 ERA, 210 Ks, 217 IP, .237 Opp ba. #hegood— Evan Grant (@Evan_P_Grant) July 29, 2016
Put that in one year and you have one of the best seasons by a starting pitcher in franchise history.
This has been an strange year for American League starting pitchers. You saw it with the makeup of the All-Star team with nine relievers selected to just five starters. The National League, for example, sported the opposite with nine starters to just five relievers.
The Archers, Stromans, Carrascos, and Grays of the league have either struggled or been hurt. Of the former winners, only Kluber is having a season that has been up to snuff. Sale, Quintana, and Tillman are having good years with Sale considered the season-long presumptive winner before he cut up his team's jersey and got himself suspended.
And then there's Cole Hamels. Remember him?
On the year, Hamels is 12-2 and only a couple of wins behind Tillman and Sale for the league lead. Hamels has a 2.84 ERA which is second best in the league, and he's struck out 132 hitters which is good for 7th in the league and just one K behind Sale. Those are fairly surface-level stats but they're they kind of stats Cy Young voters look at. Beyond the surface, Hamels has a 3.8 bWAR on the year which tops the league.
Folks over at Fangraphs are feeling queasy and they don't know why as I type these words because Hamels is having a more superficially successful season by their metrics with a WAR of just 1.8 which ranks 20th in the league. The reason for the discrepancy is Hamels' elevated walk rate of 3.44 BB/9, a favorable strand rate of 83.4%, and a FIP of 4.14.
However, since walking three or more batters in four of his first five starts, Hamels has walked two or fewer in 10 of his last 16 starts. So far in the second half, Hamels as a 1.69 BB/9 rate, a 2.15 FIP and his Ks per 9 have increased from a solid 8.76 K/9 to a Yu-ish 9.70. So, even by Fangraphs standards, Hamels is coming on as the season reaches the home stretch.
The main competition at the moment for Hamels to bring a Cy Young Award to Texas appears to be Aaron Sanchez of Toronto, Danny Salazar of Cleveland, Sale and Quintana of Chicago, Tillman in Baltimore, and Kluber is perhaps ready to pounce.
Sanchez is 11-1 with an AL leading 2.72 ERA, but this is also his first full season as a starter in the big leagues and the Blue Jays may limit his innings. Salazar is 11-3 with a 2.97 ERA and 130 Ks, but he had an injury scare before the All-Star break and has allowed 15 runs in his last 22 innings in the month of July.
Sale is likely still the favorite simply because he's been on the precipice of being the AL's best pitcher for a handful of seasons and is turning in another good one. Sale is 14-4 with a 3.17 ERA and 133 Ks. He could also end up a Ranger before the deadline if Texas wants to corner the market on Cy Young candidates.
Sale's teammate Quintana has moved out of Sale's shadow to finally earn recognition as one of the best pitchers in the league but he's also just 8-8 due to historically bad run support. Cy Young voters have moved past from just looking up who was the league leader in wins and casting their vote for that guy, but I don't think we've progressed enough that they'd consider a guy with a .500 record, especially when there are similar or better candidates.
Tillman is interesting because he's tied with Sale for the league lead in wins with 14 and has been holding down the rotation for the surprising Orioles. His ERA of 3.47 isn't flashy but he is second in the league with a 3.7 bWAR.
Of note perhaps is Tillman's teammate Zach Britton who leads the league in saves and has allowed just three runs all season while striking out 50 in 42 2/3 innings. However, Cy Young voters are usually loath to vote for relievers unless they're breaking a saves record or doing something otherwise otherworldly.
The American League paints a picture where Cole Hamels has a very real chance to win his first Cy Young Award and the first Cy Young Award in franchise history. There's two months to go so things can change in a hurry, but if he does win it, he'll have earned it and earned a place among the pantheon of aces where he belongs.