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7/26/2007 12:52:00 PM

NL East: King Cole

By Ben Reiter

I was planning to write this blog entry about how Antonio Alfonseca's success as the Phillies' closer was being accomplished with smoke and mirrors, about how the club ought to immediately reinstall Tom Gordon (who's allowed one total base runner in his three post-DL appearances) in the role ­ at least until Brett Myers returns from a strained right shoulder, which could happen as early as tomorrow. Yes, I was going to write, the big-bellied Alfonseca has managed eight saves and is something of a fan favorite in Philly, but he's striking out a miniscule 3.08 batters per nine innings (the second-worst current closer in the category, Detroit¹s Todd Jones, manages 4.89), he walks more batters than he fans (the only closer who does that), and he has a closer-worst WHIP (1.66) and batting average against (.312). That his ERA is only 4.26, I planned to contend, is something of a miracle.

Then, last night, the Washington Nationals of all teams (!) ­caught up with El Pulpo, scoring three earned runs off of him to take a 5-4 lead in the top of the ninth without breaking a sweat. While the Phils' offense bailed Alfonseca out by tying the game in the bottom of the inning and winning it in the 14th, it became clear that some combination of Gordon and Myers will be closing games from here on in, at least until they both get hurt again S so, around 11 PM last night, a blog asserting that such a change should be made became pointless.

Instead, I'll write about the man who was robbed of his 12th win by Alfonseca's collapse, the pitcher whom I would choose first overall were I lucky enough to have the opportunity to select any in the National League to head my rotation for the next decade or so: the Phillies' 23-year-old southpaw ace, Cole Hamels.

With my sincere apologies to Jake Peavy, Chris Young, Brad Penny, and a few others, I believe that Hamels, in just his first full season in the majors, has emerged as the NL's most talented starter. Despite making half his starts in a ballpark that would make pitchers with lesser constitutions nauseous (Citizens Bank Park is this season the easiest place in baseball in which to hit a home run), Hamels' ERA ranks in the league's Top 20­ and he's actually been better at home (3.42) than on the road (3.84). Part of the reason why he's so valuable to the Phillies is that opponents can't hit homers if they can't hit the ball, period ­ and Hamels is three behind Aaron Harang for the NL strikeout lead. Even more important is that he seems to avoiding hitting the wall in the manner of so many young pitchers come mid-summer (see Justin Verlander last season); he's got a 2.67 ERA in four July starts.

Hamels' precocious stamina stems in part from the fact that he possesses the work ethic of a pitcher 10 years his senior. I was talking to him several weeks ago about his involved, self-driven daily routine: ­"On a gameday I normally get here around 2 P.M., which give me two hours to do shoulders, back, abs, what I need to do or myself. Probably four or five guys get here that early," he said. Reliever Geoff Geary, who was then Hamels' locker mate, interjected. "This guy's unbelievable," Geary said sincerely. "I've never seen anyone work like he does."

That ethic has overwhelmed any concerns about Hamels' character that were raised as a result of a few youthful indiscretions, including a bar fight in Clearwater, Florida that left him with a broken pitching hand two winters ago. Indeed, in person, Hamels comes across as more mellow surfer than adrenaline-crazed brawler,­ more John From Cincinnati than Deadwood.

He expresses what appears to be a genuine sense of humility. "Because of the types of pitches I have in my repertoire, I know that I can strike guys out, and it's fun," he says. "But even so, I'm surprised as any that I'm around the top of the leaderboard, because some of the names on that list, I'm in disbelief that I'm at their level. I used to watch [Jake] Peavy, he's phenomenal,­ he was just starting in San Diego when I was still [in high school] there. John Smoltz, [former Phillies teammate] Randy Wolf. There's a bunch of guys that can just blow people away."

Hamels is also unfazed when asked if any batter owns him, a question that might make other young aces indignant. "Miguel Cabrera," he says quickly. "I think he's batting .800 off me [actually .750]. From what I've seen, I think he probably has the best hand-eye coordination in the game, besides Barry Bonds. Just the way he can stay back on a ball that's either 94 or 80, he¹s still able to wait for it."

Seriously, though, being humble only gets one so far: the biggest reason why I'd pick Hamels going forward is because he long ago mastered a dominating strikeout pitch ­ his changeup. Remember, Johan Santana, who is widely agreed to possess baseball's best change, didn't even begin to get the hang of the pitch until he was Hamels' age, when he was sent down to Triple-A Edmonton to work with guru Bobby Cuellar. Hamels has been throwing a circle change since his high school coach, Mark Furtak, taught it to him at age 14.

I'm not suggesting that Hamels has nothing to work on; even though we'll cut him some slack due to his home park, he still allows way too many home runs (an NL-high 22), a tendency that causes him to get lit up once in awhile ­ he's allowed five earned runs in a game three times this season. However, when push comes to shove, I'm still on the Cole Patrol.

  • Beer Leaguer contends that the Phils' MLB-best bats shouldn't overshadow the other improvements they've made since their 4-11 start and credits much-maligned manager Charlie Manuel and his staff. Well-argued, but I still think their lack of any even above-average starter other than Hamels will keep them out of the post-season.

  • Mark Bowman says that Atlanta's the front-runner to land Mark Teixeira, which would be great for the Braves, great for Fungoes favorite Jarrod Saltalamacchia (who would presumably be installed as the everyday catcher in Texas), and absolutely devastating for Reiters on the Storm, my AL-only fantasy team.

  • Mike Cerrone's MetsBlog discusses the incredible wealth of trade deadline options the Mets will have if they're looking for an upgrade at second base, now that Jose Valentin has broken his leg, including Mark Loretta, Mark Grudzielanek, Tadihito Iguchi, Jorge Cantu, and others. The most interesting, and most far-fetched, name on the list is Brian Roberts. Mets fans must be salivating at the thought of a lineup-topping Reyes-Roberts double play combination.

  • Capitol Punishment analyzes Adam Dunn's homers, and concludes that he hits so many no-doubters that he'd barely be affected by a move from the bandbox that is Great American Ball Park to the cavernous RFK Stadium. Whether such a deal makes any sense, however, is another story. In other Nats news: can a hat get any uglier than this? Just wondering.

  • Clark Spencer and Sarah Rothschild of the Miami Herald give us what we've all been waiting for: the back story of Rick OVicious Henricius' Vanden Hurk.
  • Labels:

    posted by SI.com | View comments |  


    Posted: July 28, 2007 8:42 PM   by Anonymous
    I have to say that I'd take Peavy over Hamels -- his batting average against is twenty points better, which the difference in their parks can't quite account for, and his WHIP is also better. I'm also curious to see Hamels go through the league a bit more, see whether batters start to figure him out.

    On another note, who's editing this blog? Why is there so much weird punctuation in this blog?
    Posted: July 28, 2007 8:45 PM   by Freddie
    Hamels is obviously great, but I'd have to take Peavy over Hamels. The difference in their ballparks can't account for Peavy's batting average against being so much batter, or his WHIP lower. And I wonder if batters will start to figure Hamels out as he goes through the league a few more times...

    On another note, why is there consistently so much strange punctuation in this blog?
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