The Tampa Bay Rays have always liked Jason Hammel. He was a 6’6″ right-hander who threw in the mid-90’s with a sharp slider and a solid changeup. But everything never seemed to work out.
The Devil Rays drafted Hammel out of high school in the 19th round in 2001 out of Treasure Valley Community College, but he didn’t sign. In 2002, they liked him enough to draft him again in the 10th round, and this time he did sign. Hammel was just the third player in Rays history that they had drafted multiple times. Hammel worked his way up through the Rays system, breaking out as a 21 year old in 2004 as he moved up from Low-A Charleston to High-A Bakersfield over the course of the season, going 10-9 with a 2.66 ERA, an 8.3 K/9, a 2.5 BB/9, and a 0.6 HR/9 in 29 start and 166 IP. Then in 2005, Hammel had another nice season as he worked his way up from Double-A Montgomery to Triple-A Durham, going 11-4 with a 3.24 ERA, an 8.2 K/9, a 3.0 BB/9, and a 0.9 HR/9 in 22 starts and 136 IP. At Triple-A, though, he was drastically worse than his overall numbers, posting a solid 4.12 ERA but a 7.9 K/9, a 4.4 BB/9, and a 1.3 HR/9.
The Devil Rays were infamous for calling up top pitching prospects before they were ready, and they did that again with Hammel to begin 2006 after he had struggled at Triple-A. Hammel got destroyed in his first big league start against the Orioles, allowing 7 runs on 8 hits in 3.1 innings. His second start was a little better, as he allowed 3 runs on 4 hits in 5 innings, striking out 4 while walking 3, but the D-Rays had seen enough and sent Hammel back to Durham. In Durham, he went 5-9 with a 4.23 ERA, an 8.2 K/9, a 2.5 BB/9, and a 0.8 HR/9 in 24 starts and 127.2 IP before coming back to the D-Rays in late August. Even then, though, he continued to struggle, posted a 7.07 ERA in 7 starts with a 25-17 strikeout to walk ratio in 35.2 IP. He actually struck out 8 while walking 1 in his final start of the season, yet he allowed 6 runs on 9 hits in 5.1 innings. Hammel’s stuff was good, but his command was way off, leading to line drive after drive and hit after hit as he allowed 61 hits in 44 innings, 12.5 per 9 innings. His confidence was shattered.
Hammel started out 2007 back at Durham and pitched well, posting a 3.42 ERA and a 75-28 strikeout to walk ratio in 13 starts and 76.1 IP, and the D-Rays called him back up to the big leagues. In his first game back, he went a ridiculous 6.2 relief innings after Edwin Jackson was knocked out after just a third of an inning, and he pitched pretty well, allowing 3 runs on 6 hits, striking out 8 while walking 3. Then in his next appearance, he tossed 2.1 shutout frames for his first major league win. But then he posted a 9.35 ERA and just a 9-10 strikeout to walk ratio in his next 8 appearances across 8.2 IP, and the D-Rays thought that maybe he was uncomfortable working in shorter stints and decided to try him as a starter. His first 8 starts did not go well as he went 0-4 with an 8.13 ERA, striking out just 19 while walking 18 in 34.1 innings. But then something finally clicked for Hammel in September as he finally got command of his pitches and was able to force groundballs, and he had himself a good month, going 2-1 with a 4.09 ERA, a 7.4 K/9, a 2.5 BB/9, and 0.5 HR/9 in 6 starts and 33 IP. The D-Rays were encouraged and thought that Hammel had a chance to be a productive starter for them in 2008.
Hammel started 2008 in the Rays’ rotation almost by default as Scott Kazmir began the year on the DL with a left elbow strain and he started the year pretty nicely, going 1-1 and posting a 4.26 ERA with 13 strikeouts versus 4 walks in 19 innings. But he allowed 6 runs in 8.2 innings over his next 2 starts, striking just 2 while walking 8, and when Kazmir returned, it was clear that Hammel was the weak link in the rotation and he was sent to the bullpen. As a reliever, Hammel had his moments, even nailing down 2 late-season saves in extra-inning games, but he managed just a 4.44 ERA and a 29-23 strikeout to walk ratio in 35 appearances and was left off the Rays’ playoff roster.
In 2009, the Rays gave Hammels another chance to compete for a starting pitching job as they pitted him against Jeff Niemann in spring training. Hammel actually pitched much better than Niemann. He posted a 3.96 ERA with 18 strikeouts, 6 walks, and 3 home runs allowed in 25 innings while Niemann posted a 6.32 ERA, 10 strikeouts, 6 walks, and no homers allowed in 15.2 innings. But the Rays elected to give Niemann the nod. It could have been a matter of command- Niemann forced quite a few more groundballs than Hammel and didn’t allow a single home run, but part of the situation had to be that Hammel was a former 10th round pick who had posted a 5.90 ERA with the Rays the previous 3 seasons while Niemann had been the 4th overall pick by the Rays back in 2004. Age wasn’t a factor- Hammel was just 5 months older than Niemann with 74 more games of big league experience. But the Rays chose and Niemann and then chose to trade Hammel to the Colorado Rockies at the end of spring training.
In 2009 with the Rockies, Hammel had a great year, going 10-9 with a 4.33 ERA (which was 9% better than average for Coors Field), a 6.8 K/9, a 2.1 BB/9, and a 0.8 HR/9 in 30 starts, 4 relief appearances, and 176.2 IP. The next two seasons, Hammel managed a 4.78 ERA (4% worse than average), a 6.1 K/9, a 3.0 BB/9, and a 1.o HR/9 for the Rockies. And now this season, Hammel has had himself a breakout year, going 8-6 with a 3.43 ERA, an 8.6 K/9, a 3.2 BB/9, and a 0.7 HR/9 in 20 starts and 118 IP. But bad luck has struck him again. He underwent surgery on his right knee, missing from July to September, and then on Tuesday versus the Rays, he re-injured the knee and had to leave the game. Even when everything is going right on the mound, Hammel just can’t get a break, especially when it relates to the Rays.
Jason Hammel was a victim of circumstance. He had his confidence shattered when the Devil Rays brought up before he was ready and he got hit hard. In 2007 and 2008, he showed promise as a starter, but the Devil Rays left him in the bullpen too long in 2007, and then he never got a chance to round himself into form as a starer in 2008. In his career, Hammel has a 4.84 ERA in 135 starts compared to a 4.23 ERA in 53 relief appearances; however, his FIP as a starter is 4.18 compared to just 5.05 out of the bullpen, and that’s despite two-thirds of his starts coming at Coors. Hammel did well with the Rockies given the ballpark he was pitching in, but if the Rays had not traded him, you never know how well he could have done in a pitcher’s ballpark with the Rays’ incredible defense behind him. (Not to mention that possibility of a rigged competition in Niemann’s favor.) And now, Hammel is having a career year with Baltimore, but all of a sudden he has struggles almost nonstop with knee injuries after never missing even a day with knee injuries before this season. Hammel is 30 years old and right in the middle of his prime. Considering the way he has pitched this season and the breakthrough he has made, he still has a promising career ahead of him. After seeing everything Hammel has been through, you can’t help but root for him, even as he’s a pitcher within the division for Rays fans. He’s had so many things go wrong yet has persevered to get where he is now, and hopefully his effort will finally lead to sustained success.