The deal is worth $16 million guaranteed, which is less than what Edinson Volquez was able to wrangle out of a free agent market that was decidedly thin on top-flight talent.
How thin was it? Jeremy Hellickson accepting his qualifying offer from the Philadelphia Phillies essentially made Hammel the best starting pitcher on the market, save for Rich Hill’s 37 year-old, oft-injured arm (his 110.1 innings last season were the first time since 2007 that he had clipped more than 60 major league innings). And while Rich Hill is one of the best stories in baseball (and includes old friend and pitch-data acolyte Brian Bannister), the Dodgers were not going to let him get away following their trade to bring him over from the Athletics last season.
So that left Jason Hammel, who ended up sitting on the market until the early part of February for various reasons.
First and foremost were injury concerns, stemming from a late-season shutdown caused by elbow tightness. ‘Elbow tightness’ is one of those injury terms that could mean anything from ‘minor tendonitis’ to ‘his elbow is missing.’ While the latter turned out to not be true, it’s the kind of thing that could easily repeat as an injury in the future.
Second on the concern list would be his age. At 34, there is a decent possibility that Hammel completely disappears as a valuable pitcher (See: Young, Chris and Volquez, Edinson). There’s also a decent possibility that he remains a reasonably valuable pitcher for the next two years.
Hammel is in that liminal space for fringe-average starting pitchers, where the volatility of production and regression does not always match up with their salary demands. Teams are willing to take on a certain amount of risk on mid-thirties pitchers, provided they have some kind of track record of success. The Royals took on a similar deal with 31 year-old Ian Kennedy last offseason, though he was guaranteed more years and money and given an opt-out clause. Jason Vargas — at age 31 — was given four years and $32 million.
MLB Trade Rumors had Hammel receiving a three-year deal in the $40 million range. After he failed to find a suitor at the Winter Meetings in December, he switched agents. There were rumors that the Mariners had made an offer of two years and ~$20 million back in January, but subsequent roster shuffling apparently sunk the deal.
On its face, the contract seems remarkably reasonable, considering Hammel’s track record and what the going rate for similar pitchers was this off-season. Former Royal Edinson Volquez received two years and $22 million from the Marlins. Charlie Morton signed for two years and $14 million with the Astros. Hammel is better than Morton and after Volquez’s 2016 campaign it would have been difficult for the organization (or many other organizations) to have much faith in his ability to return to his 2015 form.
So what is Jason Hammel? In short, he is Ian Kennedy, but slightly less than; a Diet Kennedy. He racks up fewer strikeouts but walks less batters. He has home run issues, and most of the contact he gives up is of the airborn variety.
Over the past three seasons, Hammel has been worth 5.5 Wins Above Replacement (WAR) in 513.2 innings. Kennedy has been worth 6.0 WAR (in 565 innings) over that same stretch.
Over his career, Kennedy has averaged 8.33 K/9 and 3.01 BB/9. Hammel averages 7.13 K/9 and 2.87 BB/9 respectively, though his walk rate over the last three years has been below his career average.
Kennedy’s HR/FB rate is 11.0%, while Hammel’s is 11.5%. Kennedy’s career ERA/FIP/xFIP is 3.94/4.09/4.03, while Hammel settles in at 4.42/4.22/4.07. Kennedy’s flyball rate (including infield fly balls and home runs) is 62.7% while Hammel’s flyball rate is 55.5%.
Hammel is projected to rack up 158 innings and 1.7 WAR next season, which puts him on track to provide the same value that Ian Kennedy (1.7 WAR) provided last season. On a $/WAR valuation, Kansas City is paying him to be a 1.0 WAR pitcher each of the next two years.
The marked shortcoming of Hammel is that he very rarely pitches deep into games. In 61 starts over the last two seasons, Hammel averaged a shade over five innings a start. He broached 100 pitches in a game just seven times last season, and eleven times the year before that. Ian Kennedy threw 100+ pitches twenty-four times in 2016 alone.
It is reasonable to suggest that the Royals have a ‘type’ as far as free agent starting pitchers go. Between Kennedy, Hammel, Danny Duffy, Jason Vargas, Chris Young, and former starting pitchers Ervin Santana and James Shields, the Royals have gone long on the April wheat that is flyball pitchers, hoping that the vastness of Kauffman can restrain them.
Hammel certainly provides an upgrade to the rotation over the likes of Chris Young or Mike Minor, providing some production stability that Matt Strahm doesn’t offer, and partially fills the void left by Yordano Ventura, strictly in baseball terms anyway.
The rotation is more or less set with Duffy, Kennedy, Vargas, and offseason acquisitions Nate Karns and Jason Hammel. The rotation projects for 10.6 Wins Above Replacement a season after it sputtered its way to 5.6 WAR as a group. It is an improved rotation, but it still has questions and concerns regarding depth. Getting ten starts from Chris Young would not bode well for this team, and right now he appears to be the next man on the list if any starter gets hurt.
The signing of Jason Hammel at least means that Kansas City is, in fact, going for it one more time before the core group of Moustakas, Hosmer, and Cain part ways. Now that the rotation has been settled, that just leaves questions at second base, shortstop, right field, designated hitter, and the bullpen. No big deal.