Truth be told, I’ve probably spent more time producing this review than Cole Hamels has actually spent pitching for the Atlanta Braves. That makes evaluating his time with the team both tricky and incredibly easy at the same time.
Hamels signed with the Braves on December 4, 2019, on a one-year deal worth $18 million before COVID-19 shortened the season and prorated salaries across the league. That made him one of Atlanta’s largest acquisitions of the offseason, along with Marcell Ozuna and Will Smith.
Unfortunately, the bad news began not long after that. Essentially as soon as pitchers and catchers reported to Spring Training in February, manager Brian Snitker announced that Hamels had hurt his shoulder and would not be available for at least three more weeks. Information got understandably dicey from there as to when the veteran lefthander would be available, but it was pretty clear that Hamels was not going to be ready anywhere close to the original Opening Day.
But that didn’t really matter, since the season didn’t actually start until four months or so later than originally planned. Except, Hamels wasn’t ready then, either.
In fact, the 36-year-old didn’t pitch for the Braves until September 16. He lasted just 3 1/3 innings against the Baltimore Orioles, surrendering three runs on three hits and a walk with two strikeouts. The last out he recorded was a rocket off the bat of Renato Nunez, and his night was done after 52 pitches. That wasn’t too far off the mark of what the team was shooting for that night, essentially regarded as a Spring Training start of sorts to ramp up to the playoffs, so it wasn’t seen as a real setback.
However, that was all Hamels would pitch in the 2020 season. Just a few days later, he was scratched from a start against the Miami Marlins and was done for the season.
Now it would be easy to call the Cole Hamels deal merely “one of those things” in baseball. The Braves signed a veteran player to a usually risk-free, one-year deal, and it didn’t pan out. No way to avoid that, right?
In fact, it’s easy to see why the Braves would be drawn to Hamels. From his years in Philadelphia, they knew how devastating he can be on the mound. Furthermore, he got off to an incredible start in 2019 for the Chicago Cubs, posting a 2.98 ERA and 1.20 WHIP before an oblique injury on June 28. If you stop the tape there, you see plenty of evidence that Hamels had at least one more good year in him.
The tape doesn’t stop there, though.
After he returned from injury on Aug. 3, 2019, Hamels pitched just 42 innings in his last 10 starts of the season. In those starts, he posted a 5.79 ERA and a 1.83 WHIP with opposing hitters averaging .315 with a .903 OPS. The eight homers he allowed over that time period works out to a 1.71 average per nine innings, well above his career average of 1.1.
Perhaps most damning in hindsight, though, were his remarks to NBC Sports Chicago, which were published the day before he signed in Atlanta. He was addressing his poor finish to the season and told reporter Chuck Garfien his shoulder was at least partially to blame for his struggles.
Then trying to come back, I knew that I needed to be back there because I was doing so well and so after healing up and not throwing a ball for almost 18 days, I rushed back into my throwing program and I was just never able to get my shoulder the right strength.Hamels
Now, I’m not a MLB general manager, and I will most likely never be hired to fill that role. But when I saw how Hamels finished the year in Chicago after an injury, I had huge reservations about paying him $18 million to pitch in Atlanta. The numbers alone, coupled with the fact that he already had 14 seasons and more than 2,600 innings on that left arm, were enough to make me wonder if we had already seen the beginning of the end for Hamels.
So it’s not really hindsight, especially when the above assessment from the man himself was already public knowledge, to say that leaning on Hamels to fill a rotation spot was much riskier than the usual one-year deal. He outright said that the oblique injury was already wreaking havoc on the rest of his body, something that isn’t likely to get better at this stage of his career. It never felt like a great move, and the actual worst-case scenario played out in terms of on-field results.
A lot has been made about Hamels’ potential impact on the club, particularly young pitchers like Max Fried, that extends beyond the stat line. That sounds great and all, but according to many reports, he wasn’t even present at the initial Spring Training. Further, pitching coaches don’t make $18 million, and Josh Tomlin reportedly played a similar role for A.J. Minter and Kyle Wright at a fraction of the cost.
The starting pitching issues for the Braves are well-documented, and they don’t stop with Hamels. But when the other options at the start of the year included Fried and Mike Soroka as the only real locks, followed by Mike Foltynewicz, Sean Newcomb, Kyle Wright and Felix Hernandez, the team was set up in a way that they really needed Hamels to be at least reliable.
So the best hope going forward for the Braves is that they’ll exercise a little more caution in these one-year deals, particularly for veteran pitchers. Sometimes the writing is already on the wall, and the opportunity cost of filling a roster spot with a man who will never really help the team can be great.