On October 27, 2008, I lay sprawled on the carpet in front of the television, watching as Cole Hamels twirled yet another postseason masterpiece. My new puppy sat calmly by my side, having finally learned the rally towel was my toy, not his. Hamels pitched six innings that night; he could have gone deeper were it not for a 48-hour rain delay, but his efforts proved to be enough. Two days later, I was jumping with joy into my father’s arms as Hamels clutched the World Series trophy in his.
Fifteen years later, the living room carpet is long gone. The TV remains, although it’s wildly out of date. That new puppy is now officially geriatric, with greying fur and two bad hips. My father would prefer I no longer jump into his arms; he gets enough of a workout carrying our 50-pound dog up and down the stairs.
Forty different players took the field for the Phillies in 2008. Thirty-nine have since retired. Hamels, however, isn’t quite ready to submit to the passage of time. On Thursday afternoon, the veteran left-hander signed a minor league deal with the Padres and will head to Peoria as a non-roster invitee, hoping to make his way back to the big leagues at 39 years old.
Hamels last pitched in a major league ballgame in 2020. He made one start that year, tossing three mediocre innings in September before returning to the IL. Triceps tendinitis held him out for most of the season, and shoulder issues took him out in the end. Various setbacks have kept him on the shelf ever since. He attempted a comeback with the Dodgers in 2021 but couldn’t get his body to cooperate. In 2022, he chose to bide his time instead, receiving treatment for shoulder, knee, and foot problems. Now, the four-time All-Star says he’s pain-free for the first time in years. If that really is the case, it’s promising news.
The last time Hamels was healthy, he was quite good. Over the first three months of the 2019 season, he made 17 starts, averaging nearly six innings per outing. His 2.98 ERA ranked fifth in the National League, and his 3.59 FIP ranked tenth. His four-seam velocity was down a smidge, but his cutter velocity was up, and both pitches were getting the job done. Most importantly, his changeup, long his best pitch, was looking sharp and working wonders.
Hamels missed the next five weeks with a torn oblique, and when he returned, he simply wasn’t the same. His velocity was down, his control was shaky, and the results were abysmal. In ten more starts, he barely managed four innings per outing. His 5.29 FIP only looked passable next to his 5.79 ERA. After the season, he acknowledged that he came off the injured list too soon and overworked his left shoulder trying to regain velocity and protect his ailing oblique. The same shoulder has given him problems ever since.
So yes, the last time Hamels was fully healthy, he was an excellent starting pitcher. There’s nothing false about that statement. And yet, the last time Hamels was fully healthy doesn’t tell us much about what to expect the next time he returns to full strength. He hasn’t pitched meaningful innings in over three years, and he’s reached an age where the vast majority of players choose to throw in the towel. We can talk about his past performance until the cows come home, but until he actually starts pitching, it’s anyone’s guess what he’ll look like in 2023. The last time he was fully healthy, he was an excellent starting pitcher; he was also four years younger and the picture of perfect health. Time is a fickle thing.
Ultimately, if Hamels can make it to the majors at all in 2023, he should consider the year a success. Anything else is just icing on top. In the last two decades, only one pitcher has returned after more than two years away to start even a single game at age 39-plus: Bronson Arroyo. And while Arroyo was merely eating innings for a last-place Reds team, Hamels would be pitching meaningful games for a powerhouse Padres squad.
These days, when one thinks about a 39-year-old star pitching making a comeback from injury, it’s hard not to draw comparisons to Justin Verlander. I’ll nip that in the bud right now — 2022 Verlander is a poor comp for 2023 Hamels — but Verlander’s story is still a good reminder that pitchers don’t just turn to dust in their late thirties. Indeed, we happen to be in the midst of a pretty great era for older starting pitchers. Starters age 36 or older combined for 23.6 WAR in 2022, the most since 2007, when such pitchers threw twice as many innings as they did last year. On a per-inning basis, then, 2022 produced the highest WAR in this age group since 2003. Moreover, eight different starters age 36 or older threw at least 100 innings last season, the most since 2015. All eight of those pitchers are returning for 2023, and Hamels is hoping to join them:
Starters Age 37-Plus in Projected Rotations
Projected rotations via Roster Resource
Despite their seemingly overflowing roster, the Padres will have a spot for Hamels if he earns it. Until recently, San Diego was ready to enter the season with two converted relievers at the back of the rotation (Nick Martinez and Seth Lugo) and little depth behind them. Even with new signing Michael Wacha in the mix, Bob Melvin is still planning to give Martinez and Lugo a shot to start ballgames; the Padres will use a six-man rotation at times this season.
If Hamels forces his way onto the roster, he could supplant either Martinez or Lugo in the six-man cycle. Whichever one he replaces can move back to the ‘pen, giving the Padres another strong arm for their already-excellent relief corps. And while neither Martinez nor Lugo would be too thrilled with such a move, they’ll both get their chance to start at some point this season. The Padres are going to need more than six starting pitchers — last year they used 12 — so carrying seven big-league quality starters is hardly a surplus of depth:
Hamels has earned over $200 million in his major league career. This year, he’ll be playing for peanuts. He’s already pitched a no-hitter, an immaculate inning, and the winning game of the World Series. He’s accomplished just about everything he could hope to, and no one would call him a quitter if he chose to call it a career. So when he takes the mound this spring, he won’t be doing it for the money or the glory. He no longer has anything to prove. This is just a man who loves to pitch.
In due course, the TV in my childhood home will turn off for the last time. Eventually, my mother will buy a new rug, and someday, Hamels will retire. But in 2023, the man they call Hollywood will attempt to turn back the clock. If he succeeds, my geriatric dog and I will be ready and waiting to watch.