The curious case of the young lefty

The mystery surrounding Cole Hamels grows deeper with each pitch, more bizarre with every theory. Who is this man on the mound now? What happened to the dominant lefty who helped us win a World Series title?

Watching Cole Hamels throw his flat fastball and dangling curve nowadays, fans are beginning to question their own memories. The ball just seems so hittable — even for the banjo band wearing Washington Nationals’ uniforms — it’s hard to remember the days when Hamels was so good, we were comparing him to Steve Carlton.

Hamels provided no new clues yesterday and offered no new hope. Against a Washington lineup missing its best hitter, Ryan Zimmerman, Hamels was the only cloud on an otherwise perfect day. He gave up four runs in 5 2/3 innings, and only a stiff breeze blowing in from left field prevented some even uglier numbers.

The problem, very simply, is that he doesn’t look like the overpowering pitcher we saw two years ago. Remember, this is someone who not only anchored the fabulous 2008 team by winning 14 games and the World Series MVP award, but he was also 15-5 in 2007. The normal progression for young left-handers is to improve those numbers, not regress to 10-11 with a 4.32 ERA the way Hamels did last year.

So far, every theory for his downturn has defied simple logic. One is that he went to too many banquets and ate too much rubber chicken after the championship because he wanted to cash in on his new renown. Another theory is that he thinks too much now, creating a psychological hole in some games from which he can’t escape. And a third is that the batters have adjusted to his limited repertoire of pitches.

Does anybody really believe these rationalizations? Do they really accept that Hamels couldn’t get ready in the six weeks of spring training last year, or that he suddenly became a head case after winning the World Series? And why did batters suddenly adjust to Hamels in his fourth year in the big leagues, and after 84 mostly excellent starts?

No, the real problem is that Hamels’ fastball is not very good anymore. It doesn’t move, and it’s not fast. Without that fastball, his still-awesome changeup is less awesome.

The Phillies are going to solve the mystery of Cole Hamels only when they stop making excuses for his problems and figure out what happened to his fastball.

– Angelo Cataldi is a Metro columnist and host of 610 WIP’s Morning Show, which airs weekdays from 5:30-10 a.m. His column runs every Tuesday.

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