There is really no secret to winning baseball. It is simply a matter of scoring more runs than the other team, and there are two ways to do that. Either to straight out out slug them or to prevent them from scoring runs. The second is by far the more tried and true formula of winning baseball as it is easier to score two or three runs a night and win than it is to have to score five or six runs a night. It should come as little surprise then that the Orioles have a winning record at 11-7 built off of the fact that they have allowed the fourth fewest amount of runs per game in the AL.
The Orioles have allowed an average of 4.00 runs a game and the pitching staff as a total has an ERA of 3.29, which also ranks 4th in the AL, and a FIP of 3.92 which shows that this type of pitching might be sustainable from the Orioles. The one pitcher that has been the biggest surprise for the Orioles is Jason Hammel who with the Rockies was never thought as anything more than a pitch to contact pitcher.
In Hammel’s three seasons with the Rockies he compiled a 4.63 with a 1.403 WHIP and a K/BB ratio of 2.34. It is really that last stat that has changed and led to early season success for Hammel. In his first 26 innings as an Oriole Hammel is no longer walking as many batters and his K/9 has shot up from a career level of 6.3 to 8.7. Hammel’s FIP of 2.40 and xFIP of 2.74 say that while he might not maintain and ERA under 2.00 with the Orioles that he should remain consistently good for the season.
The real question is what changed with Hammel to turn him from a pitch to contact pitcher into a strikeout pitcher. Looking at Pitch/FX and the first thing that stands out is that Hammel’s has changed his approach. In Colorado last season he threw his four-seam fastball 47.4% of the time whereas in 2012 with the Orioles he has thrown it just 20.9% of the time. Hammel has also increased the percent of times he has thrown his slider from 17.0% to 24.6%, but the biggest change in approach that he has made is that he has started to feature a two-seam fastball much more frequently. Over Hammel’s career he has thrown the sinker just 6.8% of the time. In 2012 it has been his go to pitch and he has thrown it 40.55% of the time.
Velocity has also made a difference this season for Hammel. For his career his average fastball velocity has been 92.6 MPH and now he is throwing it almost an entire MPH faster at 93.4 MPH. This added velocity is helping to keep hitters off balance for when he is throwing his slider at an increased percent and is now featuring a sinker that will look like the four-seammer until it dives out of the strike-zone at the last minute.
Because of he is now featuring a sinker Hammel’s ground ball percent has shot up from a career average of 45.5% to 61.8% and his GB/FB rate is now a career best 2.63 compared to a career average of 1.34. So there it is. When the Orioles traded for Jason Hammel they traded for a pitch to contact pitcher who gave up too many fly balls going from one hitters park in Coors Field to another in Camden Yards. What the Orioles ended up getting was a power sinker ball pitcher who is able to strike batters out and get them to beat balls into the ground.
Hammel is the only pitcher playing well for the Orioles as they are out to an 11-7 start, but he is the one that has been the biggest surprise. It isn’t every year that a team is able to trade for a pitcher who is thought to be nothing more than a back of the rotation starter and turn them into a piece like Hammel might be. It is smart and unexpected moves like this that have helped the Rays to do well in the powerful AL East, and with the Red Sox fading this might be a season in which the Orioles can gain some ground.