It was five years ago today, that news of a hand injury to super-phenom Cole Hamels started to filter out of Clearwater, Florida. As the details came into focus, it was confirmed that it was, in fact, his left hand that was injured. Then, came news that the hand was broken. Finally, news of an early morning fight in a parking lot behind a bar where Hamels and some friends had been hanging out.
The story goes that one of the bar patrons got into a verbal sparring match with Hamels' group. The incident seemed to end until the two sides ran into each other in the parking lot at closing time and fists started flying. Hamels wound up braking his left hand, which would go on to cost him much of the 2005 season. A back injury also wiped out a chunk of the season and he would have just six starts to show for the season. Ironically, by the next season, Hamels would be in the majors and would never look back.
Cole Hamels has come a long way since those days. Back then, the fact that he had gotten into a bar fight wasn't that much of a stretch for the imagination, since there were rumors that a broken left arm, which kept a lot of teams from drafting him in 2003, was caused not by a football injury as the official story reads, but by a fight. The Phillies took a chance on him and by 2005, he had proven them right for drafting him, at least on a physical basis. Mentally, there were question marks about his attitude.
Fast forward five years and Cole Hamels has finally wiped away those fears from back then; unfortunately, they've been replaced by other concerns about his personality. Is he too caught up in the celebrity part of his career? Is he tough enough to truly become a staff ace and dominate hitters?
Just one year ago, those questions weren't there. Hamels was coming off of a huge 2008 season and had trophies as the National League Championship Series MVP and World Series MVP to show for his work. Hamels was on Letterman, in TV commercials, buying an exclusive penthouse in Philadelphia and had the world in his hand. It was just 54 weeks ago that the Phillies rewarded Hamels with a three-year, $20.5 million deal. Everything seemed to be going perfectly for Hamels and the Phillies.
Then, 2009 came.
Cole Hamels just wasn't the same pitcher. The guy who dominated hitters in 2008 was struggling. Very soon, speculation focused on his off-season. Cole Hamels perhaps should have focused more on his training regimen than on the celebrity. Perhaps turning down a couple of opportunities to add to his celebrity status and spending more time working on his game. By the trade deadline, the Phillies dealt for Cliff Lee, because they needed a dominant staff ace, other than what Hamels was trying to be for the club.
On occasion, Hamels would turn in a gem. Fans believed that he was turning things around and were quickly back on his side, only to be quickly disappointed again at how much he would struggle. Sending Cole Hamels to the mound was now anything but a sure win. Instead, it was more of a crap-shoot. Lee and even Joe Blanton were considered to be much more dependable than was Hamels. There was even talk of leaving Hamels off the post-season roster, which as ridiculous as it was, did circulate.
Hamels was unable to rebound in the post-season and as the Phillies came up short against the New York Yankees, Hamels was a key culprit.
Now, with an off-season dedicated much more to working out than last winter was, Hamels looks for redemption and the Phillies believe he'll turn things back to where they were in 2008. Assistant general manager Chuck Lamar has no doubt that Hamels is poised for bigger and better things.
"I don't think that there's anybody in our organization that doesn't believe in Cole Hamels and doesn't believe strongly that he is going to come back and be an outstanding pitcher," explained Lamar. "All the pieces are there. He wants to improve on last year, obviously. I think at times, he was embarrassed at how he pitched after what he did in 2008."
Lamar tabbed Hamels and closer Brad Lidge as possibly the two most important pieces of the puzzle for the 2010 season. Lidge will be on the DL to start the year, but should return shortly after opening day, but the Phillies plan on Hamels being productive from the start.
"He's critical," said Lamar of Hamels. "He and Lidge - even though Lidge is going to be on the shelf starting the year - if those two guys perform and we stay healthy, then we're awfully good."
Cole Hamels turned 26 this past December and is now at an age where he will show whether he can truly be that dominating left-hander that the Phillies have always thought that he would be or will he become just another good major league pitcher. Not in the class of the Roy Halladays and Randy Johnsons, but more in the class of the Andy Pettittes of the world.
The good news is that Hamels has a new plan for spring training this season. He'll be throwing a lot more curveballs in camp to both improve the pitch and to improve his confidence in the pitch. It's very possible that Hamels will get off to a rough start this spring as he works on developing the pitch, but it won't be fair to judge him by the numbers. Instead, we'll have to watch closely to see just how often and how well he's throwing his curveball. Spring training 2010 won't be about the numbers for Hamels, especially early on.
You don't dominate hitters like Hamels did in 2008 without having the skills to get it done. You don't pitch the way he did in the post-season that year if you don't have the skills and mind-set to get it done. We've watched as Cole Hamels has gone from that fragile young kid who was seen as a mental project to a guy who reached the pinnacle in 2008. Now, there's another crossroads for Hamels and only he can determine whether he'll become dominant as he's been in the past or average as he was in 2009. As Lamar said, there are no doubters in the organization, and Hamels is likely to prove them all right in 2010.
Cole Hamels major league stats