Rich Dubee was asked to track the progression of Cole Hamels from confused-but-blessed-with-amazing-talent to refined and assertive ace, and he began with a start in Boston last May.
"The hitters took pitches that were down like they never saw it come out of his hand," Dubee said.
Then he remembered that July start in steamy St. Louis, the one manager Charlie Manuel always gloats about.
"I could rattle [off] a bunch of games," Dubee said.
So he kept going. There were those two starts against the Mets in August, when Hamels lost consecutive 1-0 games. There was the eight-inning effort in September against the Braves in the heat of a pennant race just six days after throwing a career-high 127 pitches. Then, the coup de grace, a five-hit shutout of the Cincinnati Reds to clinch a sweep of the National League division series.
"His game has continued to just blossom," Dubee said.
You know that already. But you know that without totally understanding it because the Four Aces phenomenon will make you take Hamels' maturation for granted.
"You probably put him fourth on that list," Jayson Werth said in the visitors clubhouse at Citizens Bank Park. Then he shook his head.
Cole Hamels is 27. In the last calendar year (regular-season games since May 1), Hamels has the sixth-best ERA in all of baseball. Two of the pitchers ahead of him - Felix Hernandez and Roy Halladay - have won Cy Youngs. Another, Adam Wainwright, is out for the season, having undergone Tommy John surgery. The two others, Josh Johnson and Trevor Cahill, are young talents like Hamels.
All five of the pitchers ahead of Hamels throw a ball with their right hand.
"He continues to evolve into being one of the best lefthanders in baseball," Dubee said.
By the end of 2011, Hamels could take his place among Cliff Lee, CC Sabathia, Jon Lester, David Price, and Clayton Kershaw as the best lefty starters in the game - if he hasn't already.
And Hamels will need a new contract.
No, the Phillies do not risk losing Hamels to another team after the 2011 season. He has one year of arbitration remaining before free agency comes following 2012. But each time Hamels toes the rubber and dominates, the Phillies and their only homegrown ace move closer to what will be a fascinating negotiation process.
The lefthander is entering his prime. And if he is allowed to reach free agency, he will be lavishly rewarded.
A year of data is certainly not enough, and that is why the Phillies have not yet begun negotiations with Hamels and his agent, John Boggs. But the signs of future success are overwhelming. The 24-year-old kid who won a World Series MVP by throwing a fastball and change-up has become, in Dubee's estimation, a pitcher - not a thrower. He commands four pitches now and uses them whenever he wants.
The Phillies could sign Hamels today without bucking the recent industry trend. Long-term deals come sooner and sooner these days, buying out multiple years of arbitration as well as free agency. (The Phillies already did it once with Hamels, buying out his first three arbitration years with a three-year, $20.5 million deal after the 2008 season.)
Then again, there is no need to add risk before it's truly necessary. Sign Hamels now, and should he be injured in the next 18 months, when he would have been under team control anyway, the deal looks foolish.
But how long do you wait, and how much could the price rise?
"There are a lot of variables going on," one baseball source said.
Begin with the fact that the Phillies hold Hamels' rights for another season without needing another deal. Arbitration could expedite a long-term deal this winter. Or it could create more friction and lead to a nasty and costly process.
Phillies officials are no doubt closely watching the situations of Jered Weaver and Tim Lincecum. The Angels' Weaver, 28, led baseball in strikeouts last season and makes $7.37 million after losing his second-year arbitration case. The Giants' Lincecum, 26, is a two-time Cy Young winner making $13 million and could command upward of $20 million in the process this winter.
If either of those pitchers signs a multiyear extension during the season or early in the winter, it could set the market for Hamels, who will make $9.5 million in 2011.
Any long-term deal agreed to before free agency would have to factor what Hamels could command on the open market. For example, Felix Hernandez signed a five-year deal two years before free agency - and the last three years will pay him $18.5 million, $19.5 million, and $20 million annually. Tigers ace Justin Verlander also signed a five-year deal two years before free agency and will make $20 million in each of the final three seasons of his contract.
Could Hamels command Sabathia-type money (seven years, $161 million) if he were to hit the market after 2012? Assuming he continues his stellar pitching, it's not totally unreasonable. Sabathia was 28 when he signed his deal with the Yankees.
The other integral variable when it comes to dealing with the Phillies is length. Under Pat Gillick, the team instituted a strict policy of not going beyond three years in any deal to a pitcher. (That is why only three of Hamels' four arbitration years were bought out.) That principle was broken with the Lee contract (five years, $120 million). Lee signed when he was 32.
Hamels is five years younger than Lee and headed for stardom. He does not have a Cy Young or megadeal yet to confirm it, but that could be a matter of time.
Inside the Phillies:
These are the best ERA by starters in Major League Baseball since May 1, 2010:
PITCHER TEAM ERA
Josh Johnson Florida 2.01
Felix Hernandez Seattle 2.45
Adam Wainwright St. Louis 2.48
Roy Halladay PHILLIES 2.49
Trevor Cahill Oakland 2.58
Cole Hamels PHILLIES 2.68
Jered Weaver L.A. Angels 2.73
Tim Hudson Atlanta 2.80
Clay Buchholz Boston 2.81
Mat Latos San Diego 2.81
Roy Oswalt Houston-PHILLIES 2.84
Contact staff writer Matt Gelb
at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/magelb