TOT – Chris Hammond Flirts With History

TOT – Chris Hammond Flirts With History

(The TOT series, or Transactions of Today, looks at old moves from this date years ago. How did they happen? Did they work out? What happened after? If you enjoy or have memories/thoughts of your own, feel free to comment below and/or share on social media.) 

Transaction of Today…November 19, 2001 – The Atlanta Braves signed Chris Hammond as a free agent.

In 1998, Chris Hammond returned to the Florida Marlins, where he spent the majority of his journeyman career. He was trying – desperately – to return to the previous glory when he threw three shutouts over 37 starts between 1994-95 with a steady 3.57 ERA. But Hammond’s ERA, which skyrocketed in 1996 and 1997 – the latter of which with the Boston Red Sox – continued to balloon despite a trip back to South Beach. Included was a 1997 shoulder surgery. Hammond described the after-effects of the surgery like this: “After the surgery, it wasn’t fun anymore.”

Born in Atlanta, Hammond settled in Randolph County, Alabama where he purchased a horse ranch with a large lake and more than 200 acres. He’d watch his kids grow up and live out his life with his wife, Lynne. Not bad for early retirement.

It didn’t last long.

Just a year-and-a-half later, with his shoulder healthy, Hammond caught on with the Cleveland Indians for a bid to return to the majors. It was a comfortable area for him as he had come up in the minors as a prospect for Ohio’s other team, the Reds. He spent half of the year in Buffalo for the Indians’ Triple-A team, but couldn’t get a callup. Hearing that the Indians had a bizarre rule that all major league pitchers had to throw at least 90 mph, he asked for his release if the rule was legit. The soft-tosser soon was released.

The Braves quickly pounced, adding the southpaw to their Richmond squad for the rest of the season. He wasn’t promoted to the majors but had a 2.35 ERA over 21 games for the R-Braves including an absurd 29 K’s to just 4 walks.

Atlanta wanted to see more so they re-signed Hammond on this day 18 years ago in advance of the 2002 season. The 2001 club, after dealing John Rocker away, had failed to find a second lefty behind Mike Remlinger. They hoped Hammond could be that guy. He’d show that he was that guy and so much more.

After a nearly three-year gap between major league appearances, Hammond appeared in the Braves third game of the year, retiring two of the four batters he faced. Initially, Bobby Cox used Hammond has his long guy out of the pen. Five of his first nine outings were multiple-inning appearances and he allowed seven runs, including five earned, to finish April with a 2.87 ERA. Often, that’s a season-low for an ERA. In Hammond’s case, his ERA would never again be that high.

With a dynamite change-up, Hammond started to get a few higher leverage appearances in May. Quickly, he was becoming one of Atlanta’s most-trusted relievers in what was rapidly becoming one of the league’s premier bullpens. His ERA fell under 2.00 on June 3, the first of three consecutive appearances where he logged wins in relief. His first “hold” came on June 15. By July, he became one of Cox’s primary guys in the 7th-and-8th innings with the lead. From June 30 to August 1, he got a hold in eleven of 14 games.

Even more impressively – starting on June 30 until the end of the season, his ERA fell in every single game. He had surrendered his final earned run.

On September 21, while facing his former mates in Miami, Hammond worked around a slew of hitters – six of them reached over 1.2 innings – to lower his ERA under 1.00. Two more scoreless outings to close the year brought his ERA to 0.95. It was the first time in over a decade that a pitcher finished the year with at least 50 innings and an ERA under 1.00.

Let’s talk about the elephant in the room – how much of 2002 was luck-driven and how much was performance-driven? It’s hard to say especially with so little contact data and advanced metrics from that era available. Nevertheless, it is hard not to think luck was definitely on Hammond’s side. His .242 BABIP was 53 points below his career norm while his 83.7% LOB% was about 13% higher. And then, there were the homers. Flyball data before 2002 is really hard to come by, but hitters in 2002 hit a home run on just 1.5% of flyballs when facing Hammond. The league average was 10.7%.

Not to belabor the point, but his unearned runs are a little wild as well. In 191 innings with the Marlins during 1993, Hammond allowed just as many unearned runs as he did in 76 frames with the Braves in 2002.

But overall, results are really the only thing that matters and it’s worth mentioning that Hammond’s success was hugely successful in other ways. Hammond inherited 33 runners during the season. Only six scored. To put that in another way, only 18% of the runners that were on base already when Hammond came into a game scored. And remember – we’re talking about a lot of high-leverage outings. The average leverage index for Hammond when he entered was 1.24, good for 39th that season. Among relievers, only ten others had a better Win Probably Added, or WPA, than Hammond.

What Hammond did in 2002 may have lost some of its luster in the years that have followed, though. Between 1919 and 2005, you wouldn’t even need all the fingers on your hand to count the numbers of times a pitcher logged at least 50 innings and an ERA under 1.00. Well, unless you had some kind of farming accident and if so, my apologies. Bill Henry (1964), Rob Murphy (1986), Dennis Eckersley (1990), and Hammond in 2002 are the only four pitchers to keep their ERA under 1.00 in over 50 innings to finish the season during an era between the time Babe Ruth was sold to the Yankees and the Baby Braves did their thing in 2005.

Since 2005, though, the achievement has happened seven times in 14 years – including by the Braves’ Eric O’Flaherty in 2011. Finishing with your ERA under 1.00 is still a big thing, but the frequency of the event kind of points to how dominant and specialized relievers have become.

Nevertheless, Hammond’s exploits in 2002 were life-changing. After playing for the major league minimum in 2002, Hammond signed a two-year, $4.6 million contract with the Yankees. It included the top two single-season salaries of his career. He remained very productive with an ERA of 2.78 during the life of the contract – which included a trade to the A’s for the 2004 season. That said, Hammond became much more hittable and prone to long balls, reducing his value in high-leverage situations. Hammond had a 2.95 WPA in 2002. Combined, he had a 1.05 WPA over the next two seasons.

Hammond’s effectiveness started to wane in 2005 with the Padres and he bottomed out with a 6.91 ERA in 29 appearances with the Reds in 2006 – a sad return to the team he had grown up with as a prospect. Released at the end of June, Hammond never pitched again.

Since retiring, Hammond returned home to Oxford, Alabama at his ranch with his wife and three children. Even though he spent a relatively short amount of his career in Atlanta, he comes back to Atlanta for many of the alumni events they put on. Last August, during an Alumni Weekend homerun derby, Hammond’s job was to throw pitches to the Team of the 2000s led by team captain, Jeff Francoeur. His squad beat the Team of the 1990s and their team captain, Brian Jordan.

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