Early return on Guthrie trade looking better than ever imagined for Orioles

April 26, 2012 | Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — Even the most optimistic fans struggled with the Orioles’ decision to trade de facto ace Jeremy Guthrie to the Colorado Rockies for what looked like a slightly-younger journeyman starter and a decent reliever in the days leading to the start of spring training.

A trade should always fulfill some combination of three purposes — to get better, younger, or cheaper — and the return of Jason Hammel and Matt Lindstrom didn’t seem to fulfill any of those stipulations in an overwhelming capacity short of Hammel being a few years younger than Guthrie and the club gaining an extra year of control of a starting pitcher.

Needless to say after four starts — and it is only four starts — the addition of Hammel is looking like an impressive feather in the cap of executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette after an offseason that lacked a major splash and included plenty of curious moves.

Hammel was dominant once again on Wednesday, pitching seven shutout innings and striking out seven as the Orioles blanked the Toronto Blue Jays 3-0 to improve to 4-1 against the team who owned more wins against them in the last two seasons than any American League East foe. The 29-year-old set the tone for his impressive start by carrying a no-hitter into the eighth inning on the first Sunday of the season and has continued that success with a 1.73 earned run average in his first 26 innings with the Orioles.

“I continue to work hard and pay attention to the league,” said Hammel in trying to explain the improvement after posting a 4.76 ERA with the Rockies last season and a 4.81 mark the year before. “I’m still learning a new league and seeing what everybody else is doing.”

The right-hander had the reputation in the past for relying too much on his plus-slider and curveball but didn’t have enough trust in his fastball, which has consistently sat in the low 90s. An improved feel for a two-seamer has allowed Hammel to pitch down in the strike zone, inducing ground balls and keeping hitters off balance with outstanding movement.

Despite averaging just over six strikeouts per nine innings in his first six seasons, Hammel has struck out 25 batters in 26 innings, baffling hitters with a mix of five different pitches.

“He doesn’t get too far ahead of himself,” manager Buck Showalter said. “It’s kind of like being on the 16th hole and thinking about the 17th and 18th hole. He’s dwelling on what he’s playing. If something happens that means he’s got to face another hitter, he goes and gets it.

Though he struggled in his final two seasons with the Rockies, Hammel took away valuable lessons he’s now applying at homer-happy Camden Yards. With Wednesday’s win to improve his record to 3-0 on the season, Hammel has now allowed one earned run in 15 innings of work at his home ballpark.

“In Colorado, you’ve got to keep the ball down,” Hammel said. “Coming over here — another hitter’s park — the focus should be the bottom of the zone, anywhere you pitch. But I really, really started to put a lot of emphasis on making sure my misses are going to be down.”

Just over two months later, it’s fair to say the early return on the trade has favored the Orioles as Guthrie has stumbled out of the gate with a 5.92 ERA in his first four starts for the Rockies. On top of Hammel’s success, Lindstrom was a key part of Wednesday’s win with a dominant eighth inning in which he fanned Yunel Escobar and Jose Bautista.

Lindstrom has pitched 8 1/3 scoreless innings in seven relief appearances.

“So far, it’s good,” said Showalter about the trade. “Jeremy’s going to pitch really well over there. He already is. You hope it works out for both teams, so the next time you have something in mind, we [can] look at it as quality for quality.”

Considered a slightly-worse version of Guthrie by those trying to put a positive spin on an otherwise unpopular trade when it was first made, Hammel has easily been one of the best pitchers in the American League in April.

And while it’s unreasonable to expect him to continue pitching with the same success, perhaps the Orioles have spun a former diamond in the rough in Guthrie for another one.

“For a long time, it took me a while to build confidence,” Hammel said. “I got hit around a bit. Only when I started to care about being a pitcher did my confidence go up. Obviously, the results are showing. I’m not overconfident, but I know what I need to do to be successful.”

In his first month with his new team, whatever he’s doing differently is definitely working.

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