Cubs pitcher Jason Hammel has proved to be one of the offseason's best signings. Outside of a surprising 2012, Hammel hasn't been all that useful in Fantasy leagues. Should Fantasy owners imitate the Cubs and look to sell high on the right-hander? Or are there reasons to think his performance is legitimate?
So far, the performance looks pretty good. Hammel is posting the highest strikeout rate, and lowest walk rate, of his career. There's a reason for that too. With the Cubs, Hammel has started using his slider a lot more. After using the pitch 20.77 percent of the time in 2013, he's used the pitch 30.74 percent in 2014. There are obvious gains from this approach. The slider has been Hammel's best strikeout pitch throughout his career, and has a 19.13 whiff rate this year. Not surprisingly, he's relied heavily on the pitch in two-strike situations, which has led to his career-high strikeout rate.
There are some flaws here too. Pitchers who throw their sliders at a high rate tend to get injured at a higher rate than other pitchers, according to this article by Eno Sarris. In recent years, we've also seen Tim Lincecum talk about scrapping the pitch, and Chris Sale relying on it less when worried about injury.
Using a slider 30 percent of the time isn't necessarily a death sentence for Hammel. While Ervin Santana had injury issues early in his career, he's been relatively healthy over the past four seasons despite using his slider a ton.
Given Hammel's current situation, the risk makes sense. He signed a one-year deal so he could build up his value entering free agency. By relying on his best pitch, he's given himself the best chance to receive a big deal during the offseason. At the same time, he's put himself at a higher risk for injury. For a guy in his position, risking an injury is worth it when the prize is a multi-million dollar deal. This doesn't necessarily have much impact on his Fantasy value -- except maybe in dynasty league -- but it's still something owners may want to keep in the back of their minds.
There have been other reasons behind his success as well. Luck has played a role. Despite that, both Hammel's 3.03 FIP and 3.47 xFIP are solid. Outside of injury concerns, which are present with every pitcher, there's not a big reason to think he'll suddenly fall off. The risk has not only paid off for Hammel, but also for his Fantasy owners.