Chicago Cubs pitcher Hammel embraced change during off-season

Cubs pitcher Jason Hammel changed just about everything this winter.

The most visible manifestation is a full beard.

"Just switch it up a little bit, kind of break up that monotony of getting stuck in that same routine," he said. "That was kind of the idea of everything this off-season, to see what else there was that I hadn't discovered yet."

The new look gets the approval of the standard-bearer for facial hair, Cubs ace Jake Arrieta.

"His beard's nice," Arrieta said. "I told him he needs to grow that out for some time now. It's good to see him with a full beard."

But seriously, Hammel knew he had a lot more do to this off-season than not shave.

So he took care of his insides to try to unlock the vexing problem of why his second halves have not measured up to his first halves the past couple of years.

Hammel took a more important page out of the book of Arrieta, a noted workout freak, when he changed everything from his diet to his fitness routine to his mental approach.

"I feel like I have actually arrived at this point a couple times in my career, where I had to do something more," he said at the Cubs' spring-training facility in Mesa, Arizona. "It's well documented that the second half over the last few years has been a struggle for me. So kind of re-evaluate the mechanics and try to figure out why I was faltering at the end of the year.

"Change up the diet, change up the workout routine to focus more on the legs and small mechanical adjustments so that using my legs, now that I'm stronger there, to try to carry me deeper into the season so at the end of the year, my arm will be there."

The numbers don't lie. Overall last season, Hammel went a respectable 10-7 with a 3.74 ERA and a WHIP of 1.16. However, the first half was far better than the second. Before the all-star break, Hammel was 5-4 with a 2.86 ERA and a sparkling WHIP of 0.95.

After the break it was a different story: 5-3 record with a 5.10 ERA and a WHIP of 1.49.

In 2014, he spent about half the season with the Cubs before being traded to Oakland. That year, he went 8-6 with a 3.01 ERA before the break and 2-5 with a 4.31 ERA after the All-Star game.

A hamstring injury slowed Hammel at midseason last year. He left his July 8 start against the Cardinals after 1 inning and did not start again until July 21.

He termed the injury "nagging," but he also talked with Arrieta about making changes to his fitness routine.

"I talked with him last year at the end of the year about some Pilates stuff," Hammel said. "I never got into it. It's something I'm going to try to get into this year.

"What I did this off-season was (go) to a couple different sources that didn't know me, just get an outside point of view, unbiased. Just take a look at me not knowing who I was. Just take a look at some video and really kind of get away from what the norm was. I felt like it gave me a little different perspective because it wasn't all just baseball. It changed my outlook in the way I went about my business.

"I want to be the best that I can be. I had to figure something out. I had to find a way to get better. As you get older, things don't come as easy. The body doesn't bound back as quick. You've got to be smart about life beyond baseball, too. I really changed the diet up a lot, and that was a big difference."

Both Hammel and manager Joe Maddon say their relationship is fine. Maddon put Hammel on a short leash at times last year, and the pitcher was not happy about being taken out of some starts early.

"Listen, Hammer and I go way back, also," said Maddon, who managed Hammel in Tampa Bay from 2006-08. "If you don't have arguments or discussions or disagreements, whatever you want to call them, with your group over the course of time, you're really not doing your job. You're not going to keep everybody 100 percent happy all the time.

"You have to make some decisions that are going to rub somebody the wrong way on occasion. In an altruistic situation, you're trying to do what's best for the group all the time. I want our guys to understand that, and I think they do.

"So no, Jason and I are good. I'm really eager to see him throw. Right now, this is as good of shape as I've probably seen him ever."

For his part, Hammel is looking to close the door on that chapter.

"It is what it is; we're all trying to win," he said. "You guys keep talking about it. I'd like to just squash that one. We were trying to win. Joe's job as the manager was to try to bring home the W. Obviously, you're fired up because you start a game. The starter's main job is to finish what he started. I just wasn't doing it. I've got to respect his decision there."

Chicago Cubs starting pitcher Jason Hammel leaves the game during the fourth inning of Game 4 in baseball's National League Division Series against the St. Louis Cardinals, Tuesday, Oct. 13, 2015, in Chicago. Associated Press
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