From hated foe to beloved new addition, Josh Hamilton was the crown jewel of the Angels' off-season haul. While he is immensely talented, he brings a lot of baggage on and off the field that put his outlook for 2013 in question.
2012 Stats: 636 PA, .285 AVG, .354 OBP, .577 SLG, 103 R, 43 HR, 128 RBI, 7 SB, 4 CS, 162 K, .387 wOBA, 139 OPS+, 4.4 fWAR
2013 ZiPS Projections: 584 PA, .267 AVG, .333 OBP, .481 SLG, 73 R, 26 HR, 86 RBI, 7 SB, 2 CS, 130 K, .341 wOBA, 126 OPS+, 3.2 fWAR
2013 Bill James Projections: 630 PA, .289 AVG, .356 OBP, .540 SLG, 96 R, 35 HR, 114 RBI, 7 SB, 3 CS, 144 K, .376 wOBA
2013 CAIRO Projections: 522 PA, .270 AVG, .327 OBP, .469 SLG, 87 R, 21 HR, 83 RBI, 7 SB, 2 CS, 110 K, .341 wOBA
2013 MWAH Projections*: 550 PA, .281 AVG, .338 OBP, .492 SLG, 84 R, 26 HR, 94 RBI, 8 SB, 3 CS, 125 K, .360 wOBA
*The MWAH projections are simply my best guess based off my own personal opinion and research (my wOBA calculation is approximate)
2012 in Objective Review:
For the first two months of 2012, Josh Hamilton was the unquestioned Best Baseball Player in the Universe. He was simply destroying opposing pitching to the tune of a 1.185 OPS during that span. It was a given that he was going to secure the AL MVP and then get a ginormous contract once he hit free agency.
Then June happened. Things started going south in a hurry for Hamilton who managed just a .754 OPS that month while striking out over 32% of the time. He followed that up with the worst month of his big league career, hitting for a measly .607 OPS in July as he dealt with a bizarre personal issue that he initially refused to reveal. It turned out Josh claimed he was having trouble with his eyes because he had begun consuming too much caffeine.
He apparently rectified that issue and came back strong in August with a .943 OPS. That month got lost in the wash though because Hamilton once again cratered in the final two weeks of the season. He batted .229 in the final eight games and infamously dropped a routine flyball in the last game of the season, an error which essentially handed the game and the AL West crown to the Oakland Athletics.
Hamilton still finished with a pretty amazing line, capped by a career-best 43 homers and .577 SLG, but his wild inconsistency, off-field drama (including a relapse with alcohol and infidelity prior to the season) and unclutch play down the stretch (which he blamed on him quitting chewing tobacco) soured Ranger fans on Josh to the point that they had no problem turning on him completely once he signed with the Angels.
2012 in Revisionist History:
Despite his incredible start to the season, Josh was an afterthought in the MVP race, finishing fifth, when the season was over. Nobody wanted to talk about how good he was anymore, instead they wanted to talk about how many red flags had popped up with him. The biggest oddity in Hamilton's roller coaster season was that his plate discipline basically vanished. His strikeout rate fluctuated wildly throughout the season and ended up at an alarming 25.5%, well up from 17.3% the year before.
That is the kind of thing that tends to happen when you allow yourself to become one of the most free swingers in the game. Hamilton chased over 45% of the out-of-the-zone pitches he saw in 2012 and almost 85% of the balls in the zone, both were the highest swing rates in all of baseball. The problem is that his overall contact rate of 64.7% was the absolute worst in the league by a pretty decent margin. You don't have to be a Rhodes Scholar to understand what a bad combination that was. By the end of the season, pitchers basically refused to throw him any fastballs, resulting in him facing a the lowest percentage of heaters out of any batter in MLB. Granted, he had always faced a lower rate of fastballs, but this was a steep decline from the 50.7% he saw the year before.
How in the world he hit as well as he did despite all that is beyond me. On one hand, it does speak to how much innate talent he has that he is able to overcome an approach so bad that it makes Delmon Young shake his head. On the other hand, there is no earthly way he can continue to sustain such a high level of performance unless he addresses these growing deficiencies. That's what makes his $125 million contract so frightening.
The erosion of Hamilton's approach came so quickly and so unexpectedly that there is no predicting what will happen, especially when you consider all the unique factors like his supposed struggles with caffeine and tobacco. For a normal player, those would seem like pure unadulterated bullshit excuses to explain away poor play and focus. However, with Josh's well-known history of substance abuse, you kind of have to believe him to a certain extent which raises the notion that he might get his head and body straight and snap back in 2013 like nothing ever happened.
Three Lingering Questions for 2013:
1) Did the Angels really need to sign Hamilton?
This seemed to me like a classic case of need vs. want. The Angels probably didn't "need" Hamilton since they had the third-highest scoring offense in the AL last season despite playing in a pitcher's park. Even if they just replaced Hunter by giving Bourjos his starting job back, the Halos were still going to have a good, but probably not great, offense. However, adding Hamilton did give them a chance at a great offense. That great offense is something of a luxury, but given how shaky the rotation looks, it might actually morph into a necessity.
2) How alarmed should we be about his discipline and contact problems?
Very alarmed. Highly alarmed. Exceptionally alarmed. Whatever the reason was behind his odd inability to make contact anymore, it is a major cause for concern because that isn't a skill prone to fluctuation. Once you start with the whiffing, the whiffing almost always remains. He isn't going to suddenly start being patient again. He isn't going to start swinging appreciably less. Sure, he has always swung a lot and had a lower contact rate, but now it has gone to an extreme on all fronts and it seems highly unlikely that he'll be able to step bck from that ledge. Maybe he can toe it for a few seasons, but eventually he is going to lose his balance and fall off.
3) Is he really that much better than Torii Hunter?
According to WAR, not not even close (Torii was nearly two wins better according to fWAR and rWAR but Josh was a little better according to WARP). A lot of that was Hamilton rating out with a very rough defensive season versus a very good one for Hunter. One would have to believe that Hamilton would bounce back with the glove this season now that he is no longer being forced into center field though. However, he does bring some more things to the table than Torii does. Obviously, Josh is more talented than Torii and a lock to have a better season this year, however Hamilton is being asked to replaced Hunter's overachieving 2012 production. It could be a bit much to ask for him to replicate that OBP given Hamilton's obvious discipline issues, but he will easily post better power numbers. What I really like about Hamilton though is he gives the lineup some balance with a left-handed power bat in between Pujols and Trumbo. That should help the lineup on a bit of an intangible level that WAR can't capture as could his ability to protect Pujols, if you believe in the whole lineup protection myth.
Three Irrelevant Questions for 2013:
1) How the hell are there only three lingering questions about Hamilton?
Well, mostly because I have a template for these things and I didn't want to blow it up for Josh. If I allowed myself to do so, I could certainly ask about the weird caffeine and tobacco issues. I wouldn't hesitate to wonder whether the pressure of a big contract and abandoning Texas might get to him. I would definitely ask questions about his ability to stay healthy. And I am sure I could think of a few others, but this little exercise is starting to get depressing now.
2) Is Hamilton a religions man?
I'm not really sure because he has never brought it up in an interview or press conference. If he could provide some clarification on that front and quit being so private about his religious beliefs, I'd really appreciate it.
3) Is Josh a jerk for not giving Texas that promised chance to match any contract offer?
Hell no. Screw the Rangers. If they wanted to re-sign him, they would've. Everybody knew that they weren't going to match anyway. Besides, it was hilarious to see them get all butthurt over it.
2013 in Subjective Projection:
A lot is being made about Hamilton's streakiness last season, as if this is the norm for him. Every player experiences ups and downs throughout a season and Hamilton is definitely not immune, but up until last year, he was actually rather consistent. In fact, he had not posted an OPS under .800 in a month since July of 2009 before he tanked in June and July of 2012. That's kind of amazing. It's also hopefully a sign that his schizophrenic performance of the last year was just an anomaly and actually the result of his odd issues with caffeine and tobacco.
While it is encouraging to hear that Hamilton overhauled his diet and is in great shape entering camp, there is a lot working against him to be able to replicate the kind of numbers he posted in Texas. Obviously, he will no longer benefit from playing that bandbox in Arlington. The Big A is not a friendly park for left-handed sluggers, so that is bound to take a big bite out of his power numbers. It is also highly unlikely that Hamilton will be able to stay healthy for 636 plate appearances again. He has too long of a history of nagging injuries for anyone to expect him to play that much even with the Angels shifting him to right field and planning on giving him a regular rotation through the DH slot to keep rested.
The biggest worry, of course, is that disintegrating contact rate. As we heard so often in regards to Pujols last season, swing and contact rates normalize very quickly and seldom ever reverse course. Maybe Hamilton, as he has so often done in his personal and professional life, can prove to be an exception, but that is a huge gamble. He seems too talented to fall off the map altogether, but for him to see his performance decline to less than All-Star levels would not be a huge shock. It wouldn't be a massive disappointment either since he would still be productive, he would just be wildly overpaid and immediately become a long-term concern because he did sign a five-year deal. Needles to say, Hamilton is going to be closely watched by not just Angels fans this season, but the baseball world as a whole.