After missing the season's first three-plus weeks and struggling a mite in his first couple starts, Cole Hamels has unmistakably rounded into Cole Hamels form again.
You wouldn't know it from his record, as usual, and the Phillies gave him no help on that front last night as his seven scoreless were wasted by a one-run offensive effort that failed to hold when Jonathan Papelbon let in the tying run on a bloop single in the ninth. But after eight straight seven-plus-inning outings--all but one of which featured Cole giving up three runs or fewer--his ERA is down under three, his WHIP is back to a reasonable 1.20, and his 76 strikeouts lead the whole team.
The K's were of particular relevance last night, as Hamels' six (in seven innings of work) tied him with Chris Short for third on the Phils' all-time punchout list with 1585. Short, a two-time All-Star and Phillies Wall-of-Famer, racked up his tally over 14 seasons in 2253 innings pitched. Hamels took just nine years (counting this one) and 1671 IP. Cole should own third on his own within a couple innings of his next start, and failing injury or trade, will probably climb his way to second place (Hall-of-Famer Robin Roberts, with 1871) by either the end of next season or early into 2016.
It should probably be noted that Short and Roberts both pitched in an era that suppressed strikeout numbers far more than modern day. Roberts once led the NL with 185 Ks, a number Cole has passed five times while only finishing in the league's top five once. Still, it is mighty impressive of our ace to reach that kind of historical mark in less than a decade's time, and it shows how consistently dominant he's been on the hill for the Phillies since coming into the league in 2006.
And it also gets you wondering--could he maybe make a claim for #1 someday? Getting to #3 (and presumably #2 before long) so relatively early in his career would make you think he's got a real shot, but the gap between #2 and #1 is much, much bigger than the one between #2 and #3. That's because #1 is the legendary Steve Carlton, one-time holder of the MLB all-time strikeout total, who racked up a stunning 3031 strikeouts in just under a decade and a half of duty for the Fightins. (Carlton also picked up 1105 additional K's in stops with five other teams at the beginning and end of his career.)
To reach Lefty's all-time total, Cole would certainly have his work cut out for him. He's a little over halfway there, but he's already turned 30. Generously assuming he pitches for the Phils until he turned 40, and assuming he racks up about another 120 punchouts over the course of this season, he'd have to average about 140 strikeouts a year over the next ten seasons to pass the first-ballot Hall-of-Famer.
Sounds doable, perhaps, since Cole has never had under 145 strikeouts in a season. But that's assuming a historic level of consistency on Hamels' part into his late 30s, when even many of the greatest pitchers in history have undergone serious decline. You saw it with Cole's teammate Roy Halladay, who was the best pitcher in baseball at the outset of his 30s, but went from perennial Cy Young favorite to MLB washout in under two years' time upon hitting 35. Even if Cole did most of the catch-up work in the first half of his 30s, he'd still have to regularly hit triple-digits in Ks in his late 30s to have a realistic shot at matching Carlton.
It's also assuming that Hamels never gets hurt for any serious period of time. As a pitcher in today's MLB, you're practically injured until proven healthy, and if Cole ever tweaked his elbow early in a season and turned out to need Tommy John surgery, he'd be sacrificing a year's worth of starts he might not ever get back to pad his strikeout totals. The older you get, the more susceptible you seem to become to apparently minor injuries, and even a historically durable pitcher like Cliff Lee can suffer an elbow strain and miss a month or two of game action in recovery.
And finally, it's also assuming that Hollywood spends the entirety of his career in Philadelphia. He was drafted and has played his whole career here, never showing any desire to be moved elsewhere, but losing the way the Phils have done the last few years (and seem likely to continue doing for years to come) has a tendency to separate perennial All-Stars from their original teams.
As one of baseball's best, most reliable and most big-game-tested starters, and under team control at a reasonable (by 2014 baseball standards) rate for years to come, Hamels may be the Phillies' best trade asset at the next few trade deadlines. If Ruben Amaro Jr. ever deems to start something resembling a rebuild, Hamels would likely be among the first players to go. And if Cole never gets dealt, he'd still need to re-sign at least once more when his contract expires in either 2019 or 2020 to continue to chase Lefty's mark.
All this goes to explain why it's mostly unlikely that Hamels ever reaches the 3,031 mark with the Phils. But is it even possible? I would say yeah, it's actually a little bit possible.
A couple things are working in Cole's favor here. First would be his durability. That might sound weird, considering Hamels started the season on the DL, but that's been his first extended stay on the pine since he missed a month late in the 2007 season with a shoulder strain. Since then, he's made over 30 starts in every season until this one, where the four or five starts he missed early in the month might end up leaving him one or two short at season's end. That's pretty impressive, and bodes well for his future health--even though it never takes more than one or two nagging issues to turn a historically durable player into an "injury-prone" one.
Second would be his consistency. Cole has never really approached the levels of dominance Carlton was reaching at his peak, five times leading the NL in K's and once striking out 310 in a single season. But in six of the last seven years--the exception being his infamous post-WS MVP '09 campaign, Cole's sole lost season--Hamels has finished top ten in the league in strikeouts, always ending up somewhere around the 200 mark. To be a great stat compiler, you don't have to ever be historically brilliant, you just have to always be at least very good--just ask Eddie Murray or Rafael Palmeiro. Cole has certainly shown that ability thusfar in his career.
You'd also think that Cole's pitching style would age well, since it's based more on control and location and variation than on overpowering stuff. You never know, since even losing a couple MPH off a fastball that averages 92 can end up being devastating for a pitcher's career, but you'd have to like his chances of staying elite into his 30s more than, say, a flamethrower with unconventional mechanics like Hamels' peer Tim Lincecum, who just turned 30 but is already nowhere near the same pitcher he was at his Cy Young-winning peak.
Of course, even if Hamels remains as durable and consistent as he does in his best-case scenarios, simply staying in Philadelphia for that long may still be the biggest challenge to his breaking the record. But the Phils have shown no real desire to trade the World Series MVP, have enough money on the way from their latest TV deal to not worry about the ramifications of paying his exorbitant salary, and certainly seem in no hurry to cash in their veteran players for prospects. It might take a change of GM for Cole to truly be put on the market, and it's hard to see him asking out in the meantime.
Regardless of whether or not he ever gets there, it's pretty incredible that this is the kind of pace Cole could conceivably be on for his career. The folks over at The Good Phight had a good post recently discussing Cole's own eventual Hall chances, and while they (rightfully, I'd say) concluded that he probably won't quite get there, they also allowed that he was much closer to having that kind of resume than you'd might think. For a guy who's only finished in the top five of Cy Young voting once, he's on the path to end up as one of the ten or so best pitchers of his generation.
And at the very least, he's turned back into one of the game's most trustworthy, indomitable pitchers again this season, the guy who gives you a better-than-good chance to win every time he's on the hill, even if his team has an irritating tendency not to take it. Whether or not Cole makes the Hall, he'll be on our Wall of Fame before long as the best Phillies pitcher of the 21st century--and probably the best since Lefty.