Prospect Pulse: Hamels Change May Change Phillies Season




Mark Furtak always waited for the close-ups.

He'd get home from practice. He'd turn on TBS and he'd wait.

On nights Greg Maddux took the hill during his glorious Braves days, that became a ritual for the longtime Rancho Bernardo (Calif.) High pitching coach. Furtak always admired the way Maddux attacked hitters--with equal parts stuff and savvy--and always relished the chance to study him.

So he'd get that close-up. And sometimes, a chance to peer inside Maddux's glove. And perhaps unwittingly, that's where he found his prized pupil's ticket to the big leagues.

Furtak first coached Cole Hamels when baseball's newest southpaw sensation was a skinny, unrefined San Diego middle-schooler. They didn't start working together regularly until Hamels was a scrawny high school freshman.

Hamels already had a good fastball that touched the mid-70s, but he had an inconsistent curveball. Furtak knew all that kept Hamels from being a contributor on a varsity team loaded with pro prospects like third baseman Hank Blalock and righthander Matt Wheatland was a second offspeed pitch.

So the two began work on what became Hamels' meal ticket, a changeup that eventually put him into a Phillies uniform. For Furtak, he knew just where to look for advice: Maddux' glove.

"It's a circle change, basically," Furtak said, noting he copied the grip he taught Hamels from watching Maddux. "We started messing with the change when he was a freshman, and it was all over the place. But you could see the movement.

"The ball would just dive and snake. I was like, 'Hey Cole, you might have something here.' "

The Phillies certainly believe they have something in Hamels whom they selected in the first round of the 2002 draft thanks to his devastating changeup.

In the days before Hamels' major league debut in Cincinnati on May 12, Phillies assistant general manager Mike Arbuckle said he wanted to see three things from the organization's top pitching prospect before a callup became a consideration: An ability to repeat his workload from start to start. Off-field maturity--he lost most of last season after breaking his hand in a bar fight in Clearwater. And, most importantly, continued dominance with that changeup at Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre.

Hamels began the season at high Class A Clearwater, but after posting a 1.77 ERA in 20 innings there, he jumped straight to Triple-A and quickly proved his durability.

In his first Triple-A start against Norfolk, Hamels threw 99 pitches. He followed that with an effortless 117-pitch, complete-game gem against Richmond and a 92-pitch outing against Syracuse in his last Triple-A start before the callup. He led the minors in innings when the Phillies called him to the big leagues and was 2-0, 0.39 with a 36-1 strikeout-walk ratio in 23 innings for Scranton.

Hamels laughs when he's asked if he can control the rather random movement of his dirtiest pitch. "He can't," Furtak said. "It moves so much. It does something new every time." But as his numbers indicate, throwing the wiffle-ball change for strikes has never been an issue.

Unlike Phillies righthander Ryan Madson, who grips his change several different ways to control movement, Hamels tries to alter the circle grip he uses only slightly. Sometimes it works and offers physics-defying movement, he says with a shrug. Once in a while, nothing at all.

"With any pitch, you have to keep going out there and throwing it. Build that confidence," Hamels said. "It's all about the release point."

His most devastating changeups fade, starting over the middle of the plate and flopping through the lefthanded batter's box before it's caught. Sometimes it rides the other way, running in on righthanders.

Couple that with the low-90s fastball that he locates with conviction, and a developing curve that he is just learning to command, and Hamels has become a rare prospect who has legitimately been called both a dominant strikeout pitcher and a dominant control pitcher.

"How many 22-year-olds do you know who don't walk people?" Scranton/Wilkes-Barre manager John Russell said. "You tell me someone who has struck out over 30 guys in three starts.

"I don't know who you'd compare him to."

Phillies general manager Pat Gillick likens Hamels to a young Jimmy Key, while Phillies fans look at Hamels and have visions of Steve Carlton.

As for Hamels, he tries to pattern himself after a few of the pitchers he grew up idolizing as a skinny San Diegan with a big arm and miles of untapped promise. Guys like Trevor Hoffman, Tom Glavine and, yes, Maddux.

All of them are among the most dominant pitchers of this era. All of them use the changeup as a strikeout pitch.

The Phillies and their fans hope it's a franchise-changing pitch.

Nearly 9,000 fans flooded Lackawanna County Stadium--the team averages 4,746 fans a game--to watch Hamels pitch what turned out to be his only home game with the Red Barons when he faced Syracuse. Team officials announced the walk-up crowd to be in the 4,100 range.

Excitement for Hamels' arrival in Philly has been brewing all season, bolstered by those jaw-dropping numbers and that witchcraft changeup that has brought him from Furtak's freshman team ace at Rancho Bernardo to Philadelphia and the forefront of the race for the National League East pennant.

--DONALD COLLINS

James, Not J.J.

First it was James, then it was J.J. But now, officially, it's James.

It doesn't really matter which first name Orioles righthander James Johnson uses, because ever since the name confusion emerged last season, the 22-year-old's success rate has improved dramatically.

"When people started with the whole J.J. thing, I didn't really understand it," Johnson said. "My teammates and friends call me that, but basically because those are my initials. And having J.J. in there with Johnson, well . . . that's just too many J's."

The Orioles were patient with Johnson after signing him as a fifth-round pick in 2001, not exposing him to full-season ball until his fourth professional season. Even then, they held him back in extended spring training while he recovered from a bout with mononucleosis.

But last year, Johnson anchored the staff at high Class A Frederick, going 12-9, 3.49 with 168 strikeouts in 160 innings and helping them to win the Carolina League title.

This season, the results at Double-A Bowie have been even better--even if the stuff hasn't been. Through 40 innings, Johnson was 4-1, 3.63 with a 36-14 strikeout-walk ratio in 40 innings. The strikeout-walk rate has been his biggest bugaboo this season, and he walked four again in his last start.

"My stuff was OK, but I'm walking too many guys," Johnson said. "I need to do a better job of commanding my pitches. Especially my fastball--I need to be able to throw that for strikes whenever I need to, and it's been only kind of there sometimes."

Johnson's velocity on his fastball has also been down slightly, sitting in the 88-90 mph range compared to last season when he was consistently 90-93.

"Part of it is it's so early, part of it is my comfort level with my command," Johnson said. "But right now everything's too hard. My curveball's been good most of the time, but my changeup's been too hard. When you're throwing fastballs at 88-90, an 85 mph changeup is probably not a good thing."

Johnson isn't concerned much with his arm speed on the changeup, but he has been tinkering with different grips to make it more effective and get it back to where it was last season, when it was one of the best in the Carolina League.

And while he led the CL in strikeouts last season, Johnson said he doesn't want to focus on that number, especially as he works on his changeup and fastball command. Instead, he's showing consistent maturity in battling through innings without his best stuff--which might be the best thing for his development.

"With things the way are now, I just can't get away with trying to blow guys away," he said. "I need to go out there and force contact instead of trying to strike everybody out. I was doing that at certain points this season and having that mentality never gets you anywhere."

QUICK HITS

• It's been a long road for Indians lefthander Scott Lewis, but all the hard work rehabbing various injuries had the 22-year-old leading the minors in ERA with a 0.66 mark at high Class A Kinston.

Lewis, a third-round pick out of Ohio State in 2004, blew out his elbow during his sophomore season with the Buckeyes and needed Tommy John surgery. He bounced back quickly, however, returning to the mound 11 months after the operation. Then he missed more time last season with biceps tendinitis, and the Tribe shut him down for six weeks. The organization was being cautious with him this season, limiting him to a 65-70 pitch count through May.

"Everything's swing and miss right now," Kinston pitching coach Steve Lyons said. "But he's had tremendous command of all his pitches. All we're working with him now is being consistent from outing to outing. We don't know what's on the other side in how he bounces back after every start. But he's been fine health-wise. Everything is going to be determined on how he bounces back."

• Astros lefthander Brian Bogusevic was placed on the disabled list at low Class A Lexington with an inflamed elbow. The 2005 first-round pick was struggling terribly at the time of the injury and was 0-2, 10.66 in five starts.