Another season, another big money Angel free agent slugger struggling in April. As we all know far too well by now, Josh Hamilton has been flat out terrible for the Halos. His numbers really can't get much worse, nor can his overall dilemma given that his problems are much more difficult to figure out than one might think.
The easy answer is that his plate discipline and contact ability have gone to crap. That is true, sort of. His plate discipline and contact rates have always been pretty ugly, but it has always worked for him, at least until he had a prolonged slump late last season and then again to start his Angel career. Given how bad he has been this year, one would expect his numbers at the plate to be much worse than normal. But they aren't, and so begins are quest to figure out what the hell is going on with Hamilton.
The discipline and contact issues are bound to be a factor, but they are actually somewhat improved over 2012. His overall swing rate has decreased by over a full percentage point from 2012, but it is almost one percentage point above his 2011 swing rate. He is also making a lot more contact than in 2012, up to 71.3% from 64.7% in 2012. That is actually pretty encouraging, but his current rate is still the second-worst rate of his career, so it isn't all good news.
Now here is where it gets very confusing: Hamilton is currently posting a career-best by a substantial margin of 3.99 pitches per plate appearance. That stat nearly blew my mind, though it is somewhat explained away that Hamilton has been striking out at a 28.4% rate, which is a ridiculous rate. Turns out that you need to see at least three pitches to strikeout. Who knew? But at the same time, Hamilton's 6.2% walk rate isn't too far below his career average, so it isn't as if he is completely falling apart at the plate.
Another oddity that comes into play here is that while Hamilton is making more contact, he does not appear to be making good contact. He is currently saddled with a .286 BABIP, which is well below his career BABIP of .334. Some of that might be bad luck considering that his line drive and pop-up rates are generally in line with career norms. He is seeing a small spike in flyballs, but probably not enough to merit much attention.
What Hamilton is doing, as you can see in this table below, is hitting a ton of foul balls:
Granted, Hamilton always hits a lot of foul balls, but he has seen a substantial spike this year and, not so coincidentally, a sharp drop off on the number of balls he has put in play. All these fouls could certainly help explain why his at-bats have been going on longer even though he is seeing, as the table shows, fewer 2-0 and 3-0 counts. That isn't conclusive of anything, but when combined with his low BABIP that he isn't just the victim of bad luck so much as just making worse contact either because he has lost bat speed and/or is just lost at the plate and his timing is thrown off as a result.
In case you weren't confused enough about Hamilton yet, let's now look at the balls he actually does make contact with:
Hamilton has always been pull happy, so it shouldn't be a shock to see that he is wearing out opposing second basemen by peppering them with groundballs. Where it gets weird is that the balls he has gotten into the air have generally been up the middle or to the opposite field. That has been something of a tendency previously in his career, but it is even more prononunced in 2013 seeing how he has not made one groundball out to the left field side of second base this season. It is just another symptom that something is just not right with Josh.
If there is one trend that needs no great insight it is that Hamilton has been utterly useless against left-handed pitching. He has barely been able to touch southpaw offerings as they generally just bury him under an avalanche of low-and-away breaking balls that he just can't resist… or make contact with. It is the same strategy every at-bat, yet he refuses to adjust and maybe that is the real red flag. As a whole, Hamilton is seeing a very similar mix of pitches as he was in 2012, which is mainly pitchers throwing him mostly breaking balls. He obviously was able to handle it for parts of last season, but not this year for whatever reason.
Maybe the problem is that I am now almost 800 words in and there is no clear single source of Hamilton's problems. It appears that he might have a whole litany of problems. He is making poor contact, he is swinging at bad pitches, he can't identify breaking balls, he has a poor approach at the plate and I haven't even broached the topic of his personality quirks that could be in play here too. To put it succinctly, everything is wrong with Hamilton. That's a lot overcome, which is scary and maybe why people don't seem to have the same level of confidence that Hamilton will snap out of this funk in the same way that Albert Pujols did last season.