From the operating table to the Yankees: Ian Hamilton’s incredible path to Major League Baseball

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Apr 3, 2023; Bronx, New York, USA; New York Yankees relief pitcher Ian Hamilton (71) pitches against the Philadelphia Phillies during the sixth inning at Yankee Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

On June 4th, Yankees‘ Ian Hamilton was hit by a foul ball, an incident that would not only disrupt his career but also impact his life for several years. At that time, Hamilton was a 23-year-old who had already made his MLB debut with the White Sox the previous year. However, there were still aspects of his game that the organization wanted him to improve. Despite this, Hamilton had demonstrated remarkable velocity and aspired to become a key component of a future-contending White Sox team, especially with their young core beginning to take shape. Regrettably, he would only pitch four more innings for Chicago in 2020 before being designated for assignment.

Fast forward four years, and Hamilton has emerged as one of the most dependable relievers in the Yankees’ bullpen, which desperately needed depth. With his unique “slambio” pitch and unwavering determination, Hamilton now has the chance to become part of a new core for another organization, and his journey to this point has been nothing short of extraordinary.

The Challenging Path to the Majors

Ian Hamilton was selected in the 11th round of the MLB Draft by the Chicago White Sox in 2016. In that year, he pitched 32.2 innings with a 3.58 ERA, struggling with command and a 4.13 BB/9. 2017 proved to be a difficult year for Hamilton; he excelled in High-A, earning a promotion to Double-A in April, but his progression wasn’t always linear. He posted an ERA above 5 with their Double-A affiliate and was demoted to High-A after just 15.2 innings. While demotions can be devastating for some players, many of the best have faced similar setbacks.

2018 marked Hamilton’s comeback year, starting in Double-A determined to correct his course. His performance earned him a promotion to Triple-A in June, and between Double-A and Triple-A, he began to resemble the high-leverage relief option the White Sox had envisioned when drafting him.

  • 51.2 IP
  • 1.74 ERA
  • 2.44 FIP
  • 30.1% K%
  • 7.8% BB%
  • 22 Saves

The problem was that at the Major League level, Hamilton’s results did not translate, primarily because the White Sox were not fond of his then-called slider. On paper, Hamilton’s slider appeared to be an unremarkable pitch. A cursory look at his Baseball Savant page revealed a mere 1,619 RPMs of spin, only 0.3″ of horizontal break, and 6% less vertical drop than the average slider at his throwing velocity. It seemed like a pitch that did not produce much movement, so he used it just 24.8% of the time. Although it remained effective, achieving a 54.5% Whiff% and a .143 AVG against, this did not alter the White Sox’s opinion on the pitch.

Back in 2018, the data now publicly available was not yet widely known or employed by most organizations, and the White Sox were no exception. Hamilton, who considered the pitch misclassified as a “slider,” now labels it more of a changeup. He has since renamed the pitch “slambio,” combining both slider and changeup. The term “cambio” is the Spanish translation for changeup, which explains the name ‘sl-ambio’ rather than ‘sl-angeup.’ Language lesson aside, the White Sox viewed this pitch as a weakness for Hamilton, identifying him as a fastball-first pitcher with significantly increased fastball usage compared to today:

  • 2018
    • 68.4% Four-Seam Usage
    • 2.6% Sinker Usage
  • 2023
    • 24.7% Four-Seam Usage
    • 20.9% Sinker Usage

In the 10 innings Hamilton pitched in 2018, he recorded a 4.50 ERA with a meager 15.2% K% and a 2.25 HR/9. He returned to Triple-A the following season with the goal of learning how to miss bats at the Major League level as effectively as he had in the upper levels of Minor League Baseball. However, as mentioned earlier, his plans in 2019 were disrupted by the unfortunate foul ball incident. After being designated for assignment (DFA) in August 2020, Hamilton began cycling through various organizations.

The Mariners first acquired him as depth for their Alternate Site before placing him on waivers. The Phillies then claimed him in December, only to DFA him in January. The Twins picked him up next, but also DFA’d him within less than a week. Hamilton accepted his outright assignment to Triple-A, where he experienced an inconsistent season due to command issues, resulting in an ERA over 4. He stayed with the Twins in 2022 before being traded to the in-division Guardians for Sandy Leon, making it the third AL Central organization for which he has pitched.

Feb 20, 2020; Glendale, Arizona, USA; Chicago White Sox starting pitcher Ian Hamilton (52) poses for a photo during media day at Camelback Ranch. Mandatory Credit: Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

The Guardians had hoped to capitalize on a 26-year-old Ian Hamilton who had been impressive with the Twins’ Triple-A affiliate that year, achieving a 1.88 ERA with a 51.6% GB% and a 32.1% K%. Although his walk issues had diminished, the Guardians did not obtain the results they sought. Hamilton pitched to an ERA above 6 with the Guardians’ Triple-A team and opted for free agency at the end of the season. At that point, the Yankees would become the sixth organization he had been a part of, with only 14.2 innings of experience and a 4.91 ERA to his name.

Still mentally recovering from a nearly life-ending incident, how much longer could Hamilton pursue this dream?

Finding “It” with the Yankees

Ian Hamilton signed a MiLB deal with an invitation to Spring Training in January and was considered by many to be a non-factor for the final bullpen spot. The Yankees had brought back an old friend in Tommy Kahnle, and internal options like Greg Weissert and Matt Krook were highly favored by the organization. It didn’t help that they also signed other MiLB free agents eager to secure a spot, most notably Jimmy Cordero, who had already been added to the 40-Man Roster and spent a year with the Yankees’ Triple-A affiliate rehabbing after Tommy John Surgery.

Hamilton had a solid Spring Training, not allowing a single run in nine innings with six strikeouts and three walks. It is likely that the unremarkable strikeout-to-walk numbers enabled Cordero to secure the final roster spot over Hamilton, who was sent to Triple-A to begin the season. However, little did Hamilton know that the Yankees would call him up before he could log a single inning in Scranton; on April 3rd, he made his Yankee debut.

The Phillies managed to collect three hits off of Hamilton, but he didn’t allow a single run or walk while striking out two in 1.2 IP. Far from perfect, Hamilton showcased the elite slambio that the White Sox didn’t necessarily believe in as an out pitch. He has gone on to be a reliable multi-inning weapon for the Yankees, and his numbers in the Bronx have been remarkable. To understand what makes a good pitcher, we must look beyond merely run prevention; instead, we need to examine what leads to sustainable run prevention in the long term.

Key metrics for us to consider are K-BB% and GB%, with both metrics providing a frequency of positive outcomes that should result in outs and, consequently, lower ERAs. Let’s examine how Hamilton performs in those metrics and then draw conclusions from there:

  • 20.3% K-BB%
  • 63.6% GB%

Both of those marks are exceptional, and the data supports this. In 2022, only 10 relievers managed to record over 40 IP with a K-BB% at or above 20% and a GB% at or above 50%, featuring some of the best relievers in the entire sport on this list. Just one of these relievers had an ERA above 3 in 2022, with Jose Alvarado posting a 3.18 ERA for the eventual NL pennant-winning Phillies. Emmanuel Clase, Jhoan Duran, and Devin Williams are among the elite relievers on this list, and if Ian Hamilton can continue this trend of maintaining a high strikeout-to-walk rate alongside the groundball rates, he could potentially become one of the best relievers in the sport.

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Mar 11, 2023; Bradenton, Florida, USA; New York Yankees pitcher Ian Hamilton (71) throws a pitch against the Pittsburgh Pirates during the fourth inning at LECOM Park. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The fact that just a few years ago, Hamilton faced the real possibility of never setting foot on a baseball mound again already speaks to the adversity he has overcome in his career. The on-field inconsistency did not help either. Now, however, he is an incredible reliever for the Yankees, sporting a 1.84 ERA in his 14.2 innings of work, with Steamer projecting him to finish the season with a 3.22 ERA across 62 IP. The catalyst for this success makes his story even more remarkable, as it boils down to the pitch he was never given the green light to rely on the way he has in New York.

To say that his slambio has been good so far would be an understatement, as it has generated a 39.2% Whiff% and a .159 wOBA against, with Hamilton using the pitch 54.4% of the time. This unique “slider,” which sets him apart from the rest, creates an unlikely parallel to his journey to the MLB. In fact, it is such a distinctive pitch that even Stuff+ does not know what to do with it, grading it at a 92, which is well below average for a slider but not quite a slider either. Hamilton can manipulate the movement of the slambio to feature traditional slider sweep, straight drop, or even some horizontal run like a changeup.

The slambio also plays extremely well off his fastball, providing him with much-needed vertical separation from the pitch of over 10 inches, making it difficult for batters to pick up. It establishes a great tunnel off his four-seam fastball, and he can also mix in a sinker that gets 16.8 inches of run and has been excellent at generating groundballs. His versatile pitch mix enables him to transform what is, on paper, just a slider-fastball combination into a pitch mix that can create different movement profiles and enhance his deception. All of this stems from the slambio, which is what makes this pitch so devastating.

This slambio is becoming one of the best pitches in the entire sport, as, although it is still early, this single pitch has the 8th best Run Value among all pitches in baseball. When you examined this pitching staff, if you had chosen Ian Hamilton to possess a top 10 pitch in the entire sport, people might have thought you were crazy, but not Hamilton himself. This is not a story about the Yankees completely reworking someone’s arsenal; rather, it is one about an athlete overcoming all the hardships and struggles in his professional career to finally find a role on a Major League team and excel at it.

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Apr 10, 2023; Cleveland, Ohio, USA; New York Yankees first baseman Anthony Rizzo (48) and relief pitcher Ian Hamilton (71) stand on the field in the seventh inning against the Cleveland Guardians at Progressive Field. Mandatory Credit: David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

At various stages of Hamilton’s career, he could have walked away from the game, and no one would have blamed him. He could have left baseball right after the foul ball incident, choosing to focus on his recovery instead, but he didn’t. After the White Sox DFA’d him, he could have considered calling it quits amid the uncertainty surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic, but he didn’t. When he struggled with the Cleveland Guardians after being traded, he could have walked away from the game, thinking that he had hit a wall in Triple-A and couldn’t find sustained success on baseball’s biggest stage, but he didn’t.

Regardless of how this season pans out for Hamilton, he has already rebounded from more than most people could even fathom experiencing in their careers. To lose what “normal” was for years and not know if you’ll ever return to where you were before an accident like the one Hamilton went through. With all of that said, Hamilton continued to work and improve his game, ultimately finding the unique pitch to complement his unique journey to the big leagues. Now that he’s here, the Yankees are going to continue relying on him heavily as they nurse injuries to key members of the pitching staff.

We don’t know what the future holds for Ian Hamilton, but just as he’s done time and time again, I know that he’ll keep pressing forward.