Comparing a young, developing baseball player to an established star doesn’t always end well. These analogies are usually premature (remember when we thought Javier Baez was the next Gary Sheffield?), or sometimes hilariously unfounded (Charlie Morton and Roy Halladay are basically the same person? Sure thing, anonymous scout). With connections like these, to quote Michael Baumann, the players’ “superficial similarities are so obvious that their differences are overwhelmed.” Readers hate improper comparisons, and most writers — or the good ones, anyway — do, too.
So, with that in mind, let’s start off by listing all the ways Adam Conley is not like Cole Hamels.
Conley vs. Hamels
|Employer||Texas Rangers||Miami Marlins|
|Top 100 prospect lists||3*||0|
|Top 10 Cy Young finishes||4||0|
|World Series rings||1||0|
|Career earnings||$125.4 million||$512,500|
One’s a dominant, front-of-the-rotation starter for the Rangers, who may someday earn a bust in Cooperstown. The other’s a middle-of-the-road pitcher who’s imploded in spring training for the Marlins. “What,” you ask, “could possibly connect Hamels and Conley? They couldn’t be further apart!”
Let’s talk arsenals. Hamels can attack a hitter with five pitches: a four-seam fastball, a two-seam fastball, a cutter, a curveball, and a changeup. That last pitch — despite some hiccups in 2016 — has long stood out in Hamels’s repertoire, and in the majors. Over his 11 seasons, the changeup’s accumulated 156.5 runs of value, the most in MLB by a long shot. Just look at the way he runs it past Mike Trout:
Conley, on the other hand, has three arrows in his quiver: a four-seamer, a slider, and a changeup. (“Oh, look, another difference!” you exclaim.) As with Hamels, Conley’s slower pitches allow him to succeed. His changeup, worth 2.2 runs in 2016, bolsters his fastball, while his 9.4-run slider is a truly nasty offering:
“OK, that’s a stretch,” you say. “Both guys have good secondary pitches — why do we need a whole article about this? Am I reading Beyond the Box Score or Bleacher Report?” To that, I reply:
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- Patience is a virtue.
Let’s take a step back. Since Hamels debuted in 2006, he’s been one of 308 starters to throw 300 innings. In that group, he ranks 23rd in ERA- (81) and 34th in FIP- (85). While each of those is great, one mark is clearly better than the other. How does Hamels beat his peripherals? His .287 BABIP is low, yet not exceptional — it ranks 70th in that sample. What he’s done is leave runners on base: Just 11 other pitchers have a higher strand rate than Hamels’s 77.1 percent.
So Hamels puts people on, then doesn’t let them come around. How does he do that? This boils down to situational pitching. With the bases empty, Hamels has allowed a .300 wOBA; with runners on, a .291 wOBA. Most pitchers will do worse from the stretch — in 2016, the MLB-wide wOBA rose from .315 with no one on to .322 when someone reached base — so this bucks the trend.
You might call Hamels “clutch,” but that wouldn’t quite do him justice; this isn’t some one-year fluke blown out of proportion. He’s established a consistent pattern — with men on base, he’ll sacrifice strikeouts and walks to get inferior contact:
Hamels situational splits, career
Why do the home run rate and BABIP both drop? This is where we get to the meat of the matter. Hamels gets significantly more ground balls with runners on base (46.2 percent) than he does with the bases empty (43.5 percent). The former puts him in the 60th percentile among qualified pitchers; the latter drops him to the 39th. In addition to helping him keep the ball in the park, the ground ball increase also gives Hamels more double plays, getting him out of jams and allowing him to strand even more runners.
I’m not the first person to make note of this. Back in 2012, when researching for the pitching metric SIERA, FanGraphs’ Matt Swartz observed that Hamels always managed to get more ground balls in double-play situations. While the effect hasn’t been huge — indeed, it’s a difference of less than three percentage points — it’s certainly made a difference. “Situational pitching,” Swartz wrote, “is a skill when you control the strike zone.”
Conley, I should note, doesn’t exactly control the strike zone — he walked 10.6 percent of the batters he faced last year, the eighth-most in the majors among the 144 pitchers with at least 100 innings. (Yeah, yeah, another difference, I know.) Despite those free passes, though, he ranked 61st in ERA- (94) and 91st in FIP- (105). Like Hamels, he managed to give up fewer runs than his peripherals would suggest.
And that’s not all. Conley’s BABIP was a pedestrian .299, but his 77.3 percent strand rate put him 31st among those 144 pitchers. Like Hamels, he pitched better with men on base (.299 wOBA) than with the bags empty (.337 wOBA), and like Hamels, that came because of weaker contact from the stretch:
Conley situational splits, 2016
The reason for those disparities? Ground balls. Conley had a 32.4 percent ground ball rate with the bases empty; that was the ninth-lowest figure in the majors. Once someone had reached base, though, his ground ball rate spiked to 45.7 percent, putting him in the middle of the pack. More grounders —> lower BABIP & fewer long balls —> more runners stranded.
“All right,” you begrudgingly admit. “That’s pretty interesting. But does it really warrant an entire art—” I cut you off, because the similarities don’t stop there. Let’s dive deeper.
Why does Hamels get more ground balls with runners on? It all goes back to his signature pitch. When a hitter puts Hamels’s changeup in play, it’ll usually stay on the ground — since 2007, the cambio’s 54.4 percent ground ball rate ranks in the 80th percentile among starters. So guess what pitch Hamels uses more often when he’s in a jam?
Hamels situational pitch usage, 2007-16
Yup. By moving away from the four-seamer and curveball — which have ground ball rates of 33.7 percent and 50.1 percent, respectively — Hamels manages to get more ground balls when he needs them most. (In fairness, the cutter’s ground ball rate is an impressive 54.9 percent, but that pitch doesn’t take up much of Hamels’s arsenal, no matter the situation.) It seems pretty intuitive: When your back is against the wall, you reach back for the best weapon you have.
Although Conley’s changeup isn’t his best pitch — that title goes to the slider — it still beats his fastball. Conley’s heater got a ground ball just 33.3 percent of the time last year, far below his change (51.6 percent) and slider (50.0 percent). And guess what he did when he got in trouble?
Conley situational pitch usage, 2016
Conley followed the same path as Hamels — rely on your out pitches with runners on base — and it’s led him to the same results: more ground balls, more double plays, fewer multi-run homers, and an ERA-FIP gap. (“Wow, that is pretty cool!” It is, thank you.)
Let’s be clear about what this means. For 2017 and beyond, Conley won’t maintain a 13-percentage point gap in ground ball rate when runners are on base. As he compiles more innings, he’ll start to regress toward the mean, which will take a toll on his strand rate. What Hamels shows, though, is that Conley’s performance isn’t necessarily a fluke — a pitcher can consistently get more ground balls with men on base, if he alters his pitch mix accordingly.
Now, this really bears repeating: Conley is nowhere near as good as Hamels. He doesn’t strike out as many hitters, he gives out way more walks, and overall, he’s still a fly ball pitcher. That’s why, by both ERA and FIP, Conley fared worse than Hamels in 2016, and will likely continue to do so. This isn’t a case where aping someone’s delivery will make a pitcher an ace (again, I don’t know what that anonymous scout was smoking). Conley is who he is — a mediocre starter with some upside.
There’s one area, however, where the two southpaws align: situational pitching. Hamels has established a recipe for success, and Conley has stuck to it as well. Whether he’s imitated Hamels consciously is beyond my knowledge; perhaps this is an instance of great minds thinking alike. Whatever the reason, Conley found one thing an ace does well, decided to do it himself, and made himself a little bit better in the process.
“Wow,” you say. “This sure as hell isn’t Bleacher Report.”