Cole Hamels. Sounds more like the name of a songwriter than a baseball pitcher. Nonetheless, the 22-year-old southpaw was composing his own music on Friday night as he held the Cincinnati Reds scoreless for five innings while striking out seven and allowing just one hit in his major league debut.
Thanks to MLB Extra Innings, I watched all 92 pitches. Hamels only threw 51 for strikes but was extremely effective, despite walking five batters (including the bases full in the second inning). The tall, lanky youngster (6-4, 195) with the impeccable minor league record (195.1-114-39-31-72-273 with a 1.43 ERA and 2 HR in 35 GS) is the real deal. He is as good as they come.
Hamels is not a power pitcher per se. Oh, he throws his fastball plenty hard, working mostly at 90-91 and topping out at 93. But he combines excellent stuff with great deception. In addition to his heater, Hamels throws a good curveball and a plus-plus change-up. The latter pitch is what makes Hamels so special.
Check out the grip on his change-up. You can see why they call it a circle change. The index finger and thumb form a circle on the side of the ball. The middle and ring fingers hold the ball in a similar fashion as a two-seam fastball with the pinky on the opposite side as the thumb and index finger. The pitch is thrown with the same arm motion as the fastball and is released with the pitcher driving his thumb toward the ground. The movement on the ball is similar to a screwball, diving down and away from RHB (in the case of a lefty like Hamels).
Hamels retired the Reds in order in the first inning. He got Ryan Freel to ground out to short, struck out Felipe Lopez swinging on a circle change, and punched out Ken Griffey Jr. looking on a breaking ball.
After walking the bases loaded in the second, Hamels reached back and K'd opposing pitcher Elizardo Ramirez on three fastballs to end the inning. He walked Griffey on four pitches in the third but got Freel, Lopez, and Austin Kearns to make easy outs before and after allowing Junior to reach base.
Ryan Howard staked Hamels to a two-run lead in the top of the fourth when he homered to the opposite field on a short, compact stroke. The first round (17th overall) draft pick in 2002 out of Rancho Bernando High School in San Diego stepped it up in the bottom half of the inning by striking out Brandon Phillips and Javier Valentin--the latter on a circle change--after issuing Edwin Encarnacion a free pass with one out.
Hamels whiffed Ramirez on three pitches again in the fifth and induced Freel to ground out for the third time. He threw the pesky lead-off hitter three straight change-ups, retiring him on a ball that was cued off the end of the bat to the first baseman. There are not many veterans--much less pitchers making their MLB debuts--who have the guts and confidence to throw a change back-to-back-to-back to the same hitter. Hamels then impressed me by throwing his biggest hook of the night for a called strike to Lopez. On a 3-and-1 count, Lopez hit a line drive double to right-center field that just eluded a diving Shane Victorino, who short hopped the ball and momentarily held his glove up in the hopes of selling the second base umpire that he caught it.
The hit was Cincy's first and only against Hamels as the man who wears the number 35 on his back saved his best for last by striking out Junior swinging on a curve down and away with outstanding tilt. His boyhood idol never put the ball in play against him, whiffing twice and walking once.
Although Hamels didn't get the win--Ryan Madson, the pitcher Cole replaced in the rotation, gave up home runs to two of the first three batters he faced to allow the Reds to tie the game--he pitched about as well as anyone could have hoped. Hamels held the top-scoring team in the NL without a run in a ballpark that is the second most unfriendly to pitchers in the majors.
Hamels flat out knows how to pitch. He mixed up his pitches and kept the ball down, even enticing more than one batter to bite at a few breaking balls and changes in the dirt. Hamels works quickly and has a smooth windup and delivery, especially for someone who looks like he is all arms and legs. The lefty brings his hands together above the head, kicks his right leg up with the knee perpendicular to his body, and then uses his height and arm length to deliver the ball on a downward plane.
The prized prospect's career is anything but on a downward plane. Health permitting, Hamels should be the favorite to take NL Rookie Pitcher of the Year honors and be among the top pitchers in the league in 2007 and beyond. That should be sweet music to the ears of all Phillies fans.