Right-hander Jaden Hamm is rewarding the Tigers’ small changes with big results

Bless You Boys

The Tigers have given fans every reason to have faith in their ability to pack the minor league system with quality pitching talent. Now, it looks like they found another gem last summer when they drafted Jaden Hamm in the fifth round. The righty from Middle Tennessee State had moderate draft buzz, but as a middle rounds college player in a draft class loaded with high schoolers, he was somewhat overlooked in the pursuant local draft coverage.

That turned out to have been a mistake. Hamm was impressive in a short look at Low-A Lakeland last summer and got onto prospect lists, including our own this offseason. The Tigers gave Hamm an assignment to West Michigan this season and he’s seized it with both hands. During the first third of the season, he’s made nine starts with a sparking 0.96 ERA and 2.10 FIP, backed up by a boatload of strikeouts. His 34.8 percent strikeout rate and 3.7 percent walk rate are among the best for any starter in the minor leagues. Low minors hitters don’t stand much chance when they stand in against him, and in all likelihood, he is going to spend the back half of the season in Erie.

We were able to sit down for a conversation with Hamm last week, and he went in depth about his pitching style and the adjustments at the root of his outlandish results so far this season. Know thyself, says the axiom, and that’s exactly what the Tigers have helped Hamm do.

“We had Trackman in college, so I knew the numbers, but I didn’t really know how to interpret them, how to use my arsenal. The main thing the Tigers have really helped me on so far when I first got drafted by them was, ‘Hey, this is your pitch shape, this is what it’s doing, and this is how you can use them to be effective.’ I think that’s the biggest thing I’ve taken from the Tigers’ organization so far, is being able to understand what I have and how to use it,” said the pitcher.

Hamm came into pro ball packing a fastball that reached mid-to-high 90s, a big ol’ Uncle Charlie-style curveball and a circle change. Those are good ingredients to start with, but he wasn’t maximizing the value of what he had. Working together with the team, he revamped his approach to how he should use his pitches, primarily with the fastball.

“I have the ride with the fastball. Super vert on the fastball. So, you know, being able to work at the top of the zone… You’re never taught that! When you first start pitching, it’s always, ‘Hey, you need to work at the knees, you need to stay at the bottom of the zone,’ and that’s what I did in college. With the ride in the fastball, the fastball at the knees ended up being quad to belt high, and ended up getting hit,” he explained.

“So now, it’s like, let’s throw this thing belt-high, let it ride up, or let’s throw it at the top of the zone and let it ride out of the zone trying to get more swing and miss or trying to get more pop flies with the fastball. I have the same fastball grip, same mechanics, same release and everything that I had in college. Um, so it’s really just understanding where to throw the fastball and in different counts”

Simply adjusting how the fastball gets utilized within the context of Hamm’s arsenal has made it significantly more deadly. For example, check out this compilation of whiffs from his start on April 19 put together by TMLR. He pulls batters out of their shoes on a heater more than once.

Another adjustment the Tigers have asked Hamm to make was incorporating a slider into his repertoire. Though they have been working with many of their pitchers to install a cutter, the slider was a better fit for Hamm because he already has a fastball that draws whiffs up in the zone, which would make a cutter redundant. Instead, the slider functions as a weapon down and in on lefties to keep them honest more effectively than his other offspeed pitches, and should prove really tough on right-handers once he’s dialed the new offering in a little more.

It’s interesting to note that he was more of a draft find that needed an approach that matched his stuff. It’s going to continue getting harder to find pitchers with great vertical movement who aren’t already pitching up in the zone a lot in college, but the Tigers have landed an undervalued gem here.

Hamm and the Tigers are working on the slider, but otherwise haven’t made many adjustments to either his stuff nor his pitching mechanics. More of that will come no doubt, but so far he’s less a development story than a talented pitcher who was somewhat overlooked in college and undercut by his approach as much as anything.

“During the offseason, the coordinator reached out and was like ‘Hey, we want you to start tinkering around with a slider. Don’t make it a priority right now, we really want you to keep focusing on those three pitches that kinda got you here, but we think it’s gonna be huge for you to develop that fourth pitch,’” explained Hamm.

“Started the season off with it really, really hot and then and then, as a pitch you’re still fairly new with, you kinda don’t really have the feel for it some weeks, so it’s been a work in progress trying to be consistent with it as far as number-wise, shape-wise, stuff like that. Trying to get it where they want it, where I want it. The big thing with that pitch, it’s gotta be down in the zone. If it’s not down and you’re throwing fastballs at the top of the zone, they’re gonna see that pitch up and they’re gonna hit it.”

As cutters and sweepers have spread like wildfire throughout the league, the lines between many pitchers’ breaking balls are becoming blurry. That’s not the case with Hamm, whose pitches are clearly delineated. The slider comes in 5mph harder than the curve, with entirely different break. The added dimension to his game is enough to lock in a starter’s projection when we do our next prospect update, as are the fastball and his strike-throwing ability.

In the meantime, the goal is improve consistency and confidence. Hamm mentioned multiple times that he takes pride in being able to go to any of his pitches in a 3-2 without being afraid of giving up a free pass. However, as he advances to the upper minors, hitters will get better at recognizing spin and chase less frequently when he serves up a late-count curve. If he’s going to continue having success against MiLB journeymen and elite prospects, he needs to be able to be able to execute every time.

Hamm’s determination is to stay grounded. “You take one dream at a time,” he said. “You don’t just want to make a debut, you wanna have a career in the big leagues. Obviously, step one is to make your debut, but once you make that debut, you know, have yourself a career. Just gotta keep doing what I’m doing, man. Can’t look too far ahead, can’t keep looking back at what I’ve already done. It’s just one inning at a time.”

Some quotes were lightly edited for clarity. To read the full transcript of my interview with Jaden Hamm, click here.

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