A reader recently requested a Prospect Retrospective for Philadelphia Phillies pitcher Cole Hamels. Hamels had an unusual path through the minor leagues as a prospect, so let's take a look at his career.
Hamels was a first round pick in 2002, out of high school in San Diego, California. The 17th-overall pick in the '02 class, he was rated as the second-best prep lefty in the draft by most experts, with only Scott Kazmir ranking higher. On talent he could have gone 10 slots higher, but he broke his pitching arm as a sophomore and missed all of his junior year on rehab, adding just enough doubt to his profile to prevent a higher slot. He still showed a low-90s fastball and a promising curveball and changeup. He signed too late to pitch professionally, so I gave him a default "Grade B, good prospect need more data" entering 2003.
He provided plenty of data in 2003, and brilliant data it was: a 0.84 ERA in 13 starts for Low-A Lakewood, with a 115/25 K/BB and zero homers allowed in 75 innings. Promoted to High-A Clearwater, he posted a 2.73 ERA in five starts with a 32/14 K/BB in 26 innings.
Despite the statistical domination, it wasn't a perfect season: he showed up in camp out of shape, leading to questions about his dedication and a bout of extended spring training before assignment to Lakewood. However, those concerns were eased by his outstanding pitching once he got on the field and he was one of the top pitching prospects in the game heading into 2004. I rated him a Grade A-, ranked as the Number Six pitching prospect.
Hamels looked good early in spring training in '04, but by the end of camp he was sidelined with bothersome triceps and elbow soreness. He made just four starts for Clearwater all year. They were really good starts: 16 innings, 1.13 ERA, 24/4 K/BB, just 10 hits, but missing almost the entire season with arm trouble made him difficult to rate. I gave him a Grade B entering 2005, writing that the grade was "a compromise between his actual talent level (A-) and my injury paranoia."
He had more problems in '05. This time it was a broken hand suffered in a January bar fight, followed by a stress fracture in his back in early August. In between he managed to make three more starts for Clearwater (2.25 ERA, 18/7 K/BB in 16 innings) and three for Double-A Reading (2.37 ERA, 19/12 K/BB in 19 innings). Reports on his stuff remained very promising: 90-94 MPH fastball, outstanding changeup, very good curveball. However, his command wasn't that good in Double-A, and missing almost two complete seasons with injuries was hardly a positive for his development as a pitcher.
I gave him a Grade B+ entering 2006, writing that "if his body holds up, he has every chance to be a fine, fine pitcher," but that I wasn't sure if his body would actually do that.
Hamels stayed healthy in '06 and actually spent most of the season in the major league rotation, going 9-8, 4.08 with a 145/48 K/BB ratio in 132 innings. He went 15-5, 3.39 with a 177/43 K/BB in 183 innings in '07, emerging as one of the better pitchers in the National League and remaining that for the last five years, with rock-steady WAR production: 3.7 in '07, 4.3 in '08, 3.6 in '09, 3.5 in '10, 4.5 in '11, and 4.4 in '12.
Overall, Hamels has gone 94-71, .570 in his career, with a 3.42 ERA, 123 ERA+, with an excellent 1414/377 K/BB ratio in 1490 innings with 1333 hits allowed, 3.59 FIP. His career WAR stands at 28.3. He's thrown 200+ innings four out of the last five seasons; he's been remarkably durable considering his checkered health record in the minors. Performance-wise, he's proven to be exactly the pitcher that scouts anticipated he could be.
What about the future? Through age 28, Hamel's list of Most Similar Pitchers by Sim Score is John Candelaria, Johan Santana, Jake Peavy, Juan Pizarro, Jack McDowell, Kevin Appier, Kevin Millwood, Ron Darling, Josh Beckett, and Tim Lincecum.
Candelaria remained effective into his late 30s, though he had persistent injury problems and converted to relief at age 35. Pizarro also remained active into his late 30s but was erratic after age 28 and did a lot of role switching. McDowell fell apart at age 31. Darling began fading at 29, had a brief rebound at age 31, but was finished by 34. Appier got hurt at 30, continued soldiering along until 36 but was never the same. You know the stories for Johan, Peavy, Millwood, Beckett, and Lincecum.
Hamels has seen his ERA spike this year to 4.38 with a 3-11 record, although he hasn't lost any ground with FIP (3.65) or xFIP (3.60) and his component ratios are still in line with his career norms, so I wouldn't conclude that he's collapsing.