CLEARWATER, Fla. – Cole Hamels(notes) had gone from toast of the town to burned crisp in a year's time, so naturally a lot of folks analyzed the problem. Not just any folks – some of the best left-handed pitchers in recent memory.
Hall of Famer Whitey Ford discussed the enigmatic Philadelphia Phillies pitcher with manager Charlie Manuel over dinner. Hamels sought advice from Hall of Famer Steve Carlton and Cy Young award winner Cliff Lee(notes). And he was receptive, as always, to the counsel of 24-year veteran and teammate Jamie Moyer(notes).
So it was in the spirit of additional support that someone suggested to Manuel that Johnny Podres be summoned to spring training to tutor Hamels. After all, in his prime, Podres was a phenomenal left-handed pitcher for the Brooklyn Dodgers who went on to become a Midas-touch pitching coach with four teams, including the 1993 National League champion Phillies. Manuel stammered for a moment, then informed the gentleman that Podres had passed away (two years ago at age 75).
For all the helping hands, solicited and otherwise, Hamels is aware that only he can put his career back on track. He admits to having been overwhelmed by reaching the pinnacle too soon – a World Series MVP in 2008 at age 24 – and views the humbling setbacks of 2009 as a necessary part of his maturation.
"You live and learn," he said. "You need to have games that don't go the way you like. It lets you know this game is hard. … When things get tough, you learn a little bit about yourself. You have to simplify the game instead of making it out to be something that's even harder. And that's what I did [last year] – I made it a lot harder than the game should be."
Problems began when he spent the months following the Phillies' championship on what he wryly called "an extended media circuit" that included appearances on David Letterman and Ellen DeGeneres, as well as dozens of hand-shaking, autograph-signing publicity requests. President Obama called him the "unbelievable playoff ace" when the Phillies were honored at the White House. Hamels signed a three-year, $20.5 million contract and then went on a radio talk show and called the division rival Mets "choke artists."
In sum, he found time for everything except picking up a baseball, and he showed up at spring training out of shape. It took him weeks to build his arm strength to a point where he could throw a curveball. And when the season started, he couldn't throw the curve for strikes. Sure, he still had his live fastball and one of the best changeups in the game. But hitters had solved him, recognizing that he didn't have a reliable third pitch. The batting average against him rose from .227 in 2008 to .273 in 2009.
"Guys are going to catch up to you," he said. "Hitters made the adjustment."
Hamels' reaction to getting knocked around compounded the problem. He became furious with himself, on the mound, in plain view. Hamels, for so long the epitome of a laid-back California kid, had become a confused, clueless shell of the pitcher who had gone 29-15 the previous two seasons.
Manuel and pitching coach Rich Dubee were baffled by the spectacle.
"The biggest problem with Cole last year, in my opinion, is he pitched with a lot of anger, with himself mostly," Dubee said. "He's such a perfectionist. You don't pitch with anger. He wasn't nearly as focused as he was the two previous years. He expects a lot out of himself, not unlike most guys in that clubhouse, but your expectations of what you want and the way you approach it are very important and his approach wasn't good."
Dubee's inclination is to throw Hamels' anger in his face by having him watch video of his worst performances, not to analyze mechanics or pitch selection, but so he sees himself angrily snatching the ball back from the catcher and stomping around the mound. Hamels isn't so sure that's necessary.
"I was there. I remember those times," he said, chuckling. "I don't think I need to watch the video."
Hamels has already taken a major step toward a remedy: arriving at camp in shape. Hamels never stopped throwing during the offseason, taking baseballs on his vacation, ducking into tennis courts, gyms and schoolyards, throwing against fences, walls and to his brother.
"He needed to come to spring training in condition so work can be done," Dubee said. "He took it to heart."
Hamels will be able to work on the command of his curveball much earlier this spring because his arm strength has already been built up. Even while getting torched during the playoffs last season – he allowed seven home runs and 16 earned runs in 19 innings – he noticed what a good curve can do for a pitcher. Dodgers young left-hander Clayton Kershaw(notes) particularly made an impression.
"He has a very effective curveball," Hamels said. "I saw what that did to our hitters, and I do understand our hitters are very good. Putting that in my repertoire – a curveball – it really does change what a hitter does. A pitch that has movement in the opposite direction of the changeup adds another dimension."
Hamels also plans to develop a cut fastball – a pitch he has toyed with but never thrown in a game.
If it seems odd that a pitcher with Hamels' pedigree is still struggling to harness a curveball and develop a fourth pitch, keep in mind he pitched only 201 innings in the minors. Hamels rose quickly through the farm system and had immediate success at the big-league level. Including the postseason, he's thrown 665 innings the last three years.
So it's fair to chalk up some of his mistakes to inexperience. Mistakes like throwing consecutive changeups to Manny Ramirez(notes) in Game 1 of the NLCS last year when it was apparent Ramirez couldn't catch up with his fastball. The last changeup was deposited in the left-field bleachers.
And mistakes like Hamels thinking Yankees pitcher Andy Pettitte(notes) would bunt in the fifth inning of Game 3 of the World Series with the tying run on second and one out. He threw a high curveball hoping a bunt might be popped up, and Pettitte smacked the pitch into center field for a single. Derek Jeter(notes) and Johnny Damon(notes) followed with hits, the Phillies' lead had vanished and momentum in the series had turned.
"There are always points in anyone's career where you stop and take it all in and learn," Hamels said Thursday. "I'm still young in the baseball world."
After Game 3, Hamels all but threw in the towel, saying he couldn't wait for the season to end. Manuel again was perplexed. He called Hamels into his office for an explanation, accepted it, and the two men didn't speak during the offseason.
Not that Manuel is down on Hamels, even though he did say new acquisition Roy Halladay(notes) will start opening day. The dominance Hamels exhibited in 2007 and 2008 is fresh in Manuel's mind. All he needed was to see the left-hander the first day of spring.
"You can see it in his body and his arm strength," Manuel said. "He worked hard in the offseason, all on his own.
"He's definitely a gamer. I've never, ever questioned his mental toughness. He's going to win 20 games before his career is over."
If Hamels sustains the commitment he professed Thursday, those wins could come in 2010.
- Charlie Manuel