Hamels uniquely suited to mentor young pitchers

Hamels uniquely suited to mentor young pitchers
January 28, 2014, 7:45 pm
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Despite losing a career-high 14 games last season, Cole Hamels ranked eighth in the NL in WAR. (USA Today Images)

When the Phillies gave Cole Hamels a $144 million extension in the summer of 2013, they did so with the understanding that he'd not only headline their rotation through 2018 but also help bridge the gap between two eras of Phillies baseball.

In just eight seasons, Hamels has already played through three very different organizational periods.

He debuted in 2006, when the Phils were a solid, rising team that hadn't made the playoffs in 13 years.

He was World Series MVP in 2008 and made 96 starts from 2009-11 for teams that spent a ton of money and traded away numerous prospects to supplement the core with top-tier talent. The results were another World Series appearance, a trip to the NLCS and a franchise-record 102 wins.

As age and injuries caused a rapid team decline in 2012 and 2013, Hamels remained one of the top pitchers in baseball, even as the losses mounted and changes swept the clubhouse.

And so Hamels, at 30, is already making the transition from student to mentor.

"No matter how old you feel or you think you are, some guy's gonna be younger than you all the time," Hamels told CSN's Jim Salisbury in an exclusive interview Monday.

"... I think that's going to be exciting to be able to talk to some of these guys because we've got some tremendous pitching prospects with [Jonathan] Pettibone, and even Ethan Martin, and I know [Adam] Morgan, and having [Jesse] Biddle."

That's a group of four unfinished products. Hamels was just as raw once upon a time, but never stopped developing, thanks in large part to Jamie Moyer and Roy Halladay, two pitchers who came to the Phillies at the tail-end of extremely successful careers.

Hamels, during his notoriously difficult 2009 season, not only battled opposing hitters but also his own brain. He made things more difficult on himself. He struggled to compartmentalize and focus on the smaller picture within games. His body language was bad. He wore his frustrations on his sleeve.

Hamels is much different now. He's a grown man on the mound in complete control of his emotions whether he's suffering from bad luck, low run support or his own poor command.

"I think a lot of the mental side that I was learning from Jamie, I don't know if I was really applying it all right away, and last year I really applied it more," said Hamels, who lost a career-high 14 games last season but ranked eighth in the NL in WAR.

"So just kind of knowing that I'm able to keep notebooks, and keep my thoughts down so that I can go over them, and never go back down to that other side that you never want to experience. It always keeps you at an even keel.

"You have to center your focus a little bit more. I know the big picture is to pitch nine innings and win a game, but overall, you have to kind of create little mini-games inside the game of baseball, and I think a lot of times that's what I was starting to learn how to do, which I wasn't necessarily able to do early on. It just kind of happened and I went with the flow and obviously had some pretty successful years, but when you're tested at a very tough spot, you have to narrow your focus even more."

Mentally, Hamels had Moyer to rely on. Physically, he looked up to Halladay, the ultimate role model in terms of preparation.

"[Halladay] showing up first, before anybody, and he's older than every single one of the guys in spring training, he always got there first, he always finished first. He didn't let anybody beat him," Hamels said of the future Hall of Famer, who retired in December.

"I think that's ultimately what, if you want to be the best in this game and you want to stay around for as long as he did, you can't let anybody beat you. I think that's kind of the thought I'm going to keep in my head and that's going to keep me pushing a little bit more."

Barring an unforeseen trade, Hamels will likely head a staff that eventually includes Biddle, the Phillies' 2010 first-round lefty who's already experienced highs and lows in his minor-league career. Just two weeks ago, Biddle stood in the same clubhouse as Hamels and discussed his own mental growth process (see story). Biddle admitted that he let too many things consume his mind on the mound in 2013 and, though he dominated his opponents in April, pitched some of the worst games of his life over the summer.

"I think having those types of young guys that have the potential to be [number] one, two, three, four guys in the rotation, they're obviously the future and it's something where you want them to be better or have more knowledge than when they came in," Hamels said.

"And if I can be a part of that, then obviously I've done something right."