Josh Hamilton in LA: Outcome or Approach?

Josh Hamilton strikeout

Josh Hamilton’s story is well known. Drafted by the Tampa Bay Devil Rays in 1999, the first overall pick nearly had his career wiped out before it began by off-field issues. But he rebounded to win an MVP award in and appeared in the All-Star Game in each of his five years with the Texas Rangers. When he sig​ned with the Los Angeles Angels prior to the 2013 season, it represented a shift on many levels: from his comfort zone in Texas to LA, and from a hitter’s park to a pitcher’s haven.

While there was some worry that Hamilton would become a less productive player wearing the Halo on his hat, what has happened instead more closely resembles a collapse. After hitting .305/.363/.549 with the Rangers, Hamilton has mustered just .256/.317/.427 nearly two years into his California contract.

Is this a new Hamilton who is simply older and in a ballpark less favorable to hitters or is Hamilton playing the same game he did during his productive years and simply seeing weaker results?

Texas

Josh Hamilton Rangers

During his time with the Rangers, Hamilton’s strikeout rate remained relatively steady leading up to 2012: 17.9 percent, followed by 21.6, 16.6, 17.3, and 25.5. There was a brief blip in 2009, when Hamilton saw his overall line fall to .268/.315/.426 in an injury-shortened season, but he rebounded the next year. To date, his 6.6-percent walk rate that season remains the lowest of his career.

However, a tremendous rebound in 2010, culminating with an MVP, showed the world what the outfielder could do when fully healthy. A .359 batting average was good enough to win the batting title, a .411 on-base percentage meant he was always helping his team score runs, and 32 homers flashed the power for which Hamilton was already famous.

It wasn’t until 2012 that Hamilton’s strike out rate would once again climb over 20 percent. In that season, Hamilton was striking out in over a quarter of his plate appearances, although he posted the second-highest walk rate of his career as well. Hamilton also hit home runs: 43 long balls that year. Given how the free agent market typically rewards power, it was a good time financially for Hamilton to cross the magic 40-homer threshold.

However, 2012 was in many ways, a tale of two halves. Before the All-Star break, Hamilton was on an MVP pace once more—which would have been interesting given the Mike Trout vs. Miguel Cabrera battle that would commence that fall—batting .308/.380/.635 with 27 home runs. Afterwards, he hit just .280/.349/.574 with 16 homers. A good second half to be sure, but not the type of dominant performance that had catapulted Hamilton into baseball’s elite circle of stars.

For the season, Hamilton’s home run to fly ball ratio was 25.6 percent. By competition, in his MVP year his HR/FB was 20.6 percent and currently sits at 17.8 percent in his career.

Los Angeles

Josh Hamilton Angels press conference

The ink had hardly dried on the contract Hamilton signed with Los Angeles before the trouble began. Even in April there were signs that 2012 may not have been a tale of two halves as much as a last hurrah and a settling into the next stage of his career.

Before the first month of the season concluded, Dave Cameron of Fangr​aphs wrote that Hamilton, already an aggressive force at the plate, had taken the crown and was on his way to becoming the most aggressive player in baseball:

The Angels are paying him to be an All-Star caliber player. Over the last year, he’s been an average player, and that’s only because the last year still includes his incredible performance from last May. The last five months, Hamilton is hitting .236/.306/.447, which translates into a .320 wOBA and a 96 wRC+. This isn’t an overreaction to a bad month; that’s 543 plate appearances where Hamilton has been a below average Major League hitter.

Josh Hamilton AngelsAs bold as that claim may have seemed, even given the small sample and expected decline, Cameron was dead on. The time had come where Hamilton's reputation and his on-field performance diverged.

The high strikeout rate of 2012 never went away. It dipped slightly in 2013 to 24.8, but sits at just over 30 percent in 2014. Granted, Hamilton was injured at the start of the season and has played in just 75 games through late August, but the trends are not encouraging.

He’s still walking as much as he ever has: 7.4 and 8.6 percent over the past two years fit perfectly well with his career rates. But the results aren’t the same as they were in the past because of the rest of his game. For one year, he was able to fool the league, turning strikeouts into home runs. Since then, pitchers have gained the upper hand and haven’t let go.

According to wFB (Fastball runs above average) Hamilton has given much of his previous dominance back to the pitchers. While he put up 32.3 wFB in 2010, the decline has seen his production fall to 10.0, 18.4, 5.7, and this season, 2.6. PITCHf/x data, also on Fangraph​s, shows that Hamilton is seeing the lowest percent of fastballs (25.7%) in his career, although not far lower than 2012 (28.1%) to put all the decline on pitch type.

Hamilton began this season hitting .444/.545/.741 with two home runs before landing on the DL after eight games. He’s hit just .249/.314/.383 with six home runs since then, striking out 92 times against 22 walks.

Maybe, as in 2009, this is an injury-plagued, lost season for Josh Hamilton. But most likely, the next move is up to him: adapt against the pitchers who are winning the battle by racking up the strikeouts.

Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs and Baseball Reference

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