Friday, August 24, 2018

Are you guys ready for my latest and greatest hot take? I’m warning you, it’s a doozy. Here goes … Cole Hamels is this year’s Justin Verlander.


I know the Verlander comp sounds Looney Tunes, but hear me out. Let’s rewind the tape to 2017. Back then, a 34-year-old Verlander was in the midst of a pedestrian (at least by his gaudy standards) year pitching for the last-place Tigers when in the blink of an eye, everything changed. After a decade spinning heaters in the Motor City, the former AL MVP took his act to Houston where he would soon become the center piece of the Astros’ starting rotation.


Whatever the source of inspiration—whether it was the change of scenery or the simple thrill of playing meaningful baseball again—Verlander looked and pitched like a changed man. Before our eyes, Verlander morphed into a killing machine, mowing down hitters like a hired hitman. Including the playoffs, the former No. 2 overall pick cruised to a 9-1 mark in 11 games (10 starts) for the Stros’ while delivering a sensational 1.66 ERA over 70 2/3 innings of flawless work. More importantly, he led Houston to its first title in franchise history.


But as you can probably glean from the picture above (and the title), this article isn’t about Verlander. It’s about Cole Hamels pitching like a man possessed. I don’t know much, but I know this—Colbert Michael Hamels loves Wrigley Field. Need proof? Well for starters, Hamels pitched the game of his life there back in 2015, no-hitting the Cubs in what would be his final start as a Philadelphia Phillie. But even if we swipe that start from the record books, his track record is still excellent. After his latest gem Thursday against the Reds, Hamels’ ERA in eight career starts at Wrigley sits at a dazzling 1.58.


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Not that it matters much where Hamels is pitching these days. Since coming over from Texas at last month’s trade deadline, the former World Series MVP has been off the charts, delivering an insane 0.79 ERA over 34 masterful innings. And get this—only two of his five starts since joining the Cubs have come at Wrigley Field. Name a place. Chicago, Pittsburgh, Kansas City, Anchorage, Abu Dhabi—Hamels could hurl a masterpiece anywhere on the planet right now. The 13-year vet has been so obscenely dominant with the Cubs that Thursday’s outing, a complete game in which he allowed just one earned run, actually INCREASED his ERA (it shot up from 0.72 to 0.79).


What is this sorcery? A month ago, it looked like Hamels was on his last leg. Nothing was going right for him in Arlington—through 20 starts, the lefty was 5-9 with a lackluster 4.72 ERA while showing few if any signs of improvement. In fact, by the end of his Texas tenure, Hamels was pitching so poorly that some wondered if it was even worth it for the Rangers to trade him. What kind of return could they really expect for a declining (not to mention expensive) veteran who spent the month of July getting lit up like a Christmas tree (1-3, 11.12 ERA, .359 BAA in four starts)?


The Rangers didn’t get much for Hamels, but in the interest of rebuilding (and not wanting to pay the remaining $14.2 million he was owed between this year’s salary and his $6 million buyout), they shipped him to the Windy City.


I’m not saying Hamels will lead his team to the World Series like Verlander did (though he’s done it before), but you have to admit, the similarities are striking. Hamels is 34, the same age Verlander was when he led Houston to playoff glory. And just as Verlander dominated going from the cellar-dwelling Tigers to the AL-West-leading Astros, Hamels has taken his game to another level since migrating from Texas to Chicago, where the stakes are obviously much higher. Taking up residence at Wrigley Field, a relatively neutral venue, is also a plus for Hamels after three years of getting knocked around at hitter-friendly Globe Life Park.


As good as he’s been, Hamels isn’t breaking any new ground here. This is a familiar narrative. Throughout the years, many teams have found their savior at the trade deadline. Carlos Beltran with Houston in ‘04, CC Sabathia with the Brewers in 2008, Cliff Lee in Philadelphia in 2009. All were immediate difference-makers and Hamels is hoping to enter that same pantheon.


But let’s not undersell the heavy lifting Hamels is doing right now. Along with MVP hopeful Javier Baez (who hit this ball into another dimension) and scorching hot first baseman Anthony Rizzo, Hamels has been a driving force for a team running on fumes. Let’s take inventory, shall we? Former MVP Kris Bryant has been on the shelf with a shoulder injury. Jon Lester (7.08 ERA since the All-Star break) has been a one-man rollercoaster. Jose Quintana, who the Cubs acquired for top prospect Eloy Jimenez last year, has been the definition of average. Free agent signings Yu Darvish and Tyler Chatwood have both been flops. Closer Brandon Morrow hasn’t pitched since July. The usually even-keeled Joe Maddon has been getting tossed from games left and right. You’d never know the Cubs were in first place with all the fires they’ve had to put out this year.


But thanks to Hamels’ steady hand, it’s been smooth sailing every fifth day. He’s been the free square on the Cubs’ Bingo board, leading them to victory in all five starts (one was a no-decision, but Chicago still won) since debuting on August 1. Hamels showed he had plenty of juice Thursday night. He averaged a robust 93.4 mph on his fastball against the Reds, well above his season mark of 91.8. Thursday also represented the lefty’s first complete game in over a year. He’ll eventually come back to Earth, but right now, the National League has no answer for Cole Hamels.


AL Quick Hits: Michael Fulmer will return to the mound Friday against the White Sox after missing the past month with a strained oblique. The former AL Rookie of the Year hasn’t had much success this year, posting a sluggish 4.50 ERA with just three wins in 19 starts … Tommy Pham remained sidelined with a dislocated finger Thursday against the Royals, though he should be back in “a day or two.” Injuries have limited the Rays outfielder to just eight games since arriving at the July 31 trade deadline … Tampa Bay extended its winning streak to five with a walk-off victory Thursday against Kansas City. The Rays, who many expected to be among the worst teams in baseball this year, are a respectable 67-61 … Danny Duffy returned from the disabled list Thursday night against Tampa Bay after missing time with a shoulder impingement. The Royals left-hander scattered six hits and two runs over five innings in a no-decision … Mitch Moreland left Thursday’s game against Cleveland after hitting a railing while chasing a ball in foul ground. He was later diagnosed with a left knee contusion. The All-Star first baseman is day-to-day … Pop quiz: who has the lowest ERA among AL starting pitchers in the second half? It’s David Price, who is now 4-0 with a 1.09 ERA since the All-Star break. The Boston left-hander was lights out on Thursday, blanking the visiting Indians over eight dominant innings as the Red Sox improved to 90-39 … Khris Davis clubbed his league-leading 39th round-tripper in Thursday’s loss to Minnesota. He’s on the cusp of his third straight 40-homer season … Welington Castillo’s 80-game PED suspension is up but rather than return to the White Sox, he’ll head to the 10-day disabled list with right shoulder inflammation. The veteran backstop suffered the injury during his minor league rehab stint.


NL Quick Hits: The Brewers made a surprise move by optioning reliever Corey Knebel to Triple-A Colorado Springs on Thursday. Knebel’s demotion is only a temporary one—he’ll likely return when rosters expand next month—but it’s still a significant fall for a player who represented Milwaukee in the All-Star Game as recently as last year … Milwaukee also sent down Zach Davies, optioning him to Low-A Wisconsin. That’s more of a procedural move as this will give Davies, who had exhausted his 30-day rehab window, more time to recover from a rotator cuff injury … Yu Darvish was shut down for the year following a setback in his latest rehab start but expects to be fully healthy for the start of 2019. Elbow and triceps injuries limited the Cubs ace to just eight major league starts this season … Kris Bryant is slated for “heavy” batting practice on Friday. The Cubs third baseman has missed most of the second half with a nagging shoulder injury but could be close to beginning a rehab assignment … In other Cubs news, right-hander Tyler Chatwood landed on the DL with left hip inflammation. The right-hander has had a brutal season, limping to an ugly 5.22 ERA while recording more walks (93) than strikeouts (85) … Matt Holliday suited up for the Rockies on Thursday after being called up from Triple-A Albuquerque. Holliday spent his first five seasons in Colorado before being traded to Oakland in 2008. The 38-year-old went 0-for-3 in his return … Ian Desmond swatted a walk-off, two-run homer to beat the Padres Thursday at Coors Field. That blast came off Kirby Yates, who has slumped to a 5.87 ERA since August 1 … Wil Myers wasn’t in the Padres’ lineup Thursday after injuring his nose during Wednesday’s batting practice, though he did appear as a pinch-hitter in the seventh inning. Myers expects to be back at third base Friday night against the Dodgers … Christian Villanueva was placed on the disabled list Thursday due to a broken middle finger. Among rookies, only Ronald Acuna has slugged more homers than Villanueva this season … Speaking of Acuna, Thursday the Braves outfielder faced the Marlins for the first time since being plunked by Jose Urena, which set off a bench-clearing brawl between the two teams. The 20-year-old got his revenge by blasting his 21st homer of the year in a 5-0 Braves victory. Acuna was hit by another pitch, though this one didn’t appear to be intentional … The Nationals pulled Mark Reynolds back from revocable waivers after he was claimed by Atlanta earlier this week. The 35-year-old has belted 11 homers in 153 at-bats this season while playing a part-time role at first base … Jay Bruce will return from the disabled list on Friday. A strained hip has sidelined the Mets outfielder since mid-June … Thursday’s action featured a pair of marquee pitching matchups. Madison Bumgarner went against Cy Young contender Jacob deGrom at Citi Field while Aaron Nola and Max Scherzer did battle in DC. Bumgarner won his showdown with deGrom while Nola outdueled Scherzer for his 15th victory … That’s a wrap for me. I’ll be switching over to football full-time next week, so this will be my final baseball Dose until next season. Thanks for reading, everyone!

Jesse Pantuosco is a football and baseball writer for Rotoworld. He has won three Fantasy Sports Writers Association Awards. Follow him on Twitter @JessePantuosco.
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