Is Josh Hamilton’s Plate Discipline Improving?

After brutal June and July performances, Josh Hamilton has performed well in the first few weeks of August, hitting .320/.382/.580 in 55 trips to the plate. According to both Hamilton and his coaches, the improvement is the direct result of his willingness to finally make adjustments in terms of which pitches to swing at. After months of hacking away at pitches well out of the strike zone, he’s finally learned his lesson.

“I’m just making my mind up that I’m going to try to focus better on taking more pitches and getting in better hitter’s counts,” Hamilton said. “You see the difference. My third at-bat, I struck out. He didn’t throw me a strike. I asked the umpire, ‘Did he throw any strikes?’ He said, ‘No.’ That was the difference, being patient and getting in good hitter’s counts and knowing that if they’re pitching it there, you can hit it instead of trying to make something happen. Just take your base and score runs.”

He’s definitely saying the right things, and his recent performance is a dramatic improvement. So, is Hamilton really becoming more selective?

Judge for yourself.

Month PA O-Swing% Z-Swing% Swing% O-Contact% Z-Contact% Contact%
April 96 42% 83% 57% 56% 82% 70%
May 111 44% 82% 58% 53% 81% 67%
June 107 39% 80% 56% 41% 75% 60%
July 91 44% 85% 60% 48% 77% 64%
August 55 39% 84% 57% 66% 77% 72%

His O-Swing% — the rate of pitches where he swings at a pitch classified as outside the strike zone by PITCHF/x — is at its lowest point of the season, but it was also at its lowest point in June, when he was terrible. His overall swing rate is pretty similar to where it’s been all season, so he’s not actually taking more pitches. In fact, Hamilton’s swing rate in August is the second highest in the Major Leagues (behind only Mike Morse), so the idea that he’s developing into a patient hitter who works counts doesn’t really seem to stand up to scrutiny.

However, in that same article, Richard Durrett gets an interesting quote from Ron Washington:

“It’s impossible to step in that box and see as many pitches as these guys see and not chase,” manager Ron Washington said. “You just have to minimize your chases and how far you chase them. He quit chasing them a mile out of the strike zone and is just chasing them a half a mile.”

While Hamilton claims that he’s not chasing as often — which seems to not really be true — Washington states that the difference is in the magnitude of the chase rather than the frequency. And this is a point where O-Swing% can’t help us that much, since it just provides a binary strike/not-strike classification for all pitches, no matter whether the pitch is an inch outside or a foot outside. There are obviously some non-strikes that are harder to hit than others, and if Hamilton is varying the types of out-of-zone pitches he swings at, that could have a legitimate impact on his results.

In fact, there is one line in the chart above that would seemingly line up with Washington’s assessment; the O-Contact%. In August, Hamilton’s rate of contact on pitches out of the zone that he chases is 66%, well north of where it was in June and July, and even higher than it was in the first two months of the season when he was crushing the baseball. His Z-Contact% — contact on pitches in the strike zone — isn’t really much different than it was during his slump, so almost the entirety of his improvement in August contact rate can be attributed to putting the bat on the ball more often when he reaches for pitches out of the zone.

This would seem to align with Washington’s observation – he’s chasing, but he’s chasing better pitches to hit. Thanks to, we can look at a breakdown of the locations of pitches in August that he’s taken and that he’s swung at.

There’s no question pitchers have been aggressively attacking Hamilton away, and because of his free-swinging tendencies, they’re going well off the plate with some frequency. But, you’ll notice that there’s not a single data point in the first plot that is to the left of the -2 foot line, meaning that Hamilton has taken 100% of the pitches he’s seen this month that are at least one foot outside the border of the strike zone, and he’s only chased four pitches that were both low and away according to PITCHF/x.

Now, compare that plot to this one from June, which is when Hamilton began his tailspin:

Not only was he chasing pitches that were more than an foot off the plate, but there’s a large cluster of pitches both down and away that he went after. Pitchers were throwing sliders, curves, and cutters that ended up at his ankles and well off the plate, and those are pitches that he just couldn’t get his bat on.

In the first two weeks of August, he’s done a better job of laying off that down-and-away breaking ball. In any two week sample, however, we also have to realize that he could have just faced a series of pitches who aren’t very good at throwing those types of pitches or missed their location, and the fact that he’s still swinging at about the same population of pitches that are away-but-not-low suggests that he’s not really a reformed hack just yet. Is he working on it? It seems like it, and given how bad he was in two months, it would be amazing if he didn’t try to make some adjustments. His results have improved, and there seems to be some evidence that he’s swinging at easier pitches to hit, but I don’t think the data supports the idea that he’s now working counts and forcing pitchers to throw him strikes.

Hamilton’s still an extremely aggressive hitter. His results have probably improved faster than his approach has changed, partly due to the fact that he’s a really talented hitter who can drive pitches that most players cannot. The data doesn’t support Hamilton’s self-evaluation as much as it does support Washington’s, but that’s okay – just swinging at better pitches out of the zone might be enough for Hamilton to succeed. He’s never going to be a guy who only swings at strikes. Getting him to swing at the right kinds of balls might be the best the Rangers can hope for.

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Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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I’m a little confused about the inch/feet thing. The -2 line is two feet from the center of the strike zone, which is more than one (or two) inches outside the border of the strike zone, right?