To understand how Jason Hammel turned his season around, you must peel back layers that date back years. The answer was simple, he says. Yet the explanation of how he went from struggling starter in April and May to a reliable member of the Royals rotation takes a little bit of time.
“That’s the way I see it,” he says.
Baseball is a game of adjustments. A little tweak here, a little change there. You overcompensate for a flaw, and then you overcompensate even more when you get too comfortable.
This was the problem, Hammel says. So let him explain: A few years ago, he closed himself off during his delivery, hoping to counteract a consistent problem. His arm often lagged, leading to poor fastball command. When he closed himself off, it helped keep his arm on time.
But something happened over the last year or so. His delivery remained closed. His arm started to lag anyway. So after he opened his first season in Kansas City with a 6.65 ERA in April, and after the struggles persisted in May, Hammel went looking for a solution.
Royals pitching coach Dave Eiland recommended that he open up his delivery. The minor adjustment has worked wonders. In his first 10 starts of the year, Hammel issued 23 walks as his ERA suffered. In his last 13 outings, he has walked just 15 batters across 79 2/3 innings.
“I was walking a lot of guys and that’s pretty uncharacteristic for me,” Hammel said. “Because my game plans are always built around establishing fastball and making sure I’m not putting guys on.
“Extra traffic is not good when I’m a guy that pitches to contact.”
Since June 1, Hammel has posted a 3.73 ERA, turning his season around. The performance is what the Royals expected when, in the aftermath of the unexpected death of starting pitcher Yordano Ventura, they signed Hammel to a two-year, $16 million contract last winter.
In moments, Hammel has still struggled to be effective deep in games. On the whole, his numbers have dipped when going through the order for a third time. Yet he has still managed to log at least six innings in 12 of his last 18 starts.
“As far as I’m concerned, you get us into the sixth or even into the seventh, you’ve done your job,” Royals manager Ned Yost said.
On Tuesday, Hammel will take the mound for a 25th time here in Oakland. He is 5-9 with a 4.68 ERA, and when viewed in totality, the numbers do little to impress. But after a disastrous start, Hammel has found himself. He has been a solid starting pitcher for nearly three months. The Royals are hopeful the production can continue over the stretch run.
“Just being able to repeat the delivery with that small adjustment and command the fastball has kind of been the whole turnaround,” Hammel said.
There is also a level of comfort now. Hammel, 34, is on his sixth organization. He has been through new chapters before. But sometimes it takes a little time to settle into a new home, he says. Maybe that was part of it, too.
“We’re humans,” Hammel said. “We’re not robots. So everything that comes with that — the family, a move, the familiarity with your surroundings. There’s a lot to be said about that. The baseball is the same. But for whatever reason, sometimes it just takes a little while.”