Cubs' Jason Hammel undergoes a makeover, inside and out

MESA, Ariz. – Copying a Cy Young award winner down to growing a similar beard can’t be a bad thing, right? For Chicago Cubs pitcher Jason Hammel, it wasn’t exactly about mimicking teammate Jake Arrieta as much as it was about simply making changes.

Hammel has regressed in the second half in each of the past couple of seasons, culminating in two forgetful performances in the playoffs last year, when he gave up seven runs in 4⅓ innings.

Changes had to be made.

“At some point you have to realize you have to do something more,” Hammel said from Cubs camp. “It’s well-documented the second half over the last couple of years has been a struggle for me.”

His career second-half ERA is more than a run higher than in the first half, and it was even more dramatic last year, when it ballooned from 2.86 to 5.10. That came before the postseason meltdown, but after a leg injury slowed him. Hammel didn’t miss a start, but he was never the same as manager Joe Maddon showed little faith in him by pulling him early – even with leads.

“I just didn’t get it done,” Hammel said. “For whatever reason. I wanted to make a difference and make sure I was putting [his best] out there.”

So Hammel went to work on his diet, fitness routine -- and his beard. All staples of Arrieta’s game. The result is a slimmer pitcher who’s in the best shape of his career, according to Hammel and his teammates.

“He rededicated himself,” Arrieta said. “He wanted to make some changes. I’m very happy for him. He’s committed to making himself better, which in turn will make us a better team.

“His beard is nice. It’s good to see him with a full beard.”

The makeover actually started with Hammel going to fitness and diet experts who didn’t know him. He wanted fresh eyes on him.

“Really got away from what the norm was,” Hammel explained. “It gave me a little different perspective. It changed my outlook.”

Hammel is already feeling the difference on the mound and, combined with a slight mechanical adjustment in how he rotates his shoulder, he thinks he can get back to the fastball command that put him in All-Star consideration in each of the last two first halves. If he keeps the ball down in the zone, he has success. Simple as that.

“I want to be the best that I can be,” Hammel said. “I had to figure out how to be better. I changed the diet up a lot. That was a big difference. ... I broke up that monotony of doing the same routine. See what else there was that I hadn’t discovered.”

We won’t know for sure if the changes have real meaning until later in the season, as Hammel is slated to be the No. 4 starter behind Arrieta, Jon Lester and John Lackey. He’s part of a rotation expected to go deep into the playoffs.

As for that beard? It’s just part of the entire makeover.

“Midlife crisis?” Hammel joked. “I don’t know. Decided let’s see what I can do with it. My dad could grow a killer beard, so let’s see.”