Josh Hamilton is the most aggressive hack in baseball. This isn’t news, of course, but to put his hacktastic ways in context, here is where Hamilton’s swing rates rank among batters with 500+ PAs in the last year.
O-Swing%: 42.7% (150th of 151)
Z-Swing: 82.0% (151st of 151)
Swing%: 57.9% (150th of 151)
Zone%: 38.8% (151st of 151)
Contact%: 64.9% (151st of 151)
The only guy who has swung the bat more often than Hamilton is Delmon Young, but 46.1% of the pitches Young has been thrown have been in the strike zone. Hamilton is pitched around more than any other hitter in the game, and yet he swings more often than anyone, with the exception of one replacement level scrub.
Josh Hamilton has always been an aggressive hitter. Josh Hamilton has a career major league batting line of .301/.360/.542. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, right?
Well, it is broke(n), but most importantly, this isn’t the approach that made Josh Hamilton an elite Major League player. This approach is new, and if he doesn’t make some changes in a hurry, he’s on his way to becoming the new Ryan Howard.
To illustrate Hamilton’s shifting approach, here are his swing rates in graphical form.
During his four years in Texas, Hamilton swung at 36.6% of the pitches he was thrown outside the strike zone, and 18 hitters chased pitches out of the zone more frequently than Hamilton. Last year, for whatever reason, his chase rate spiked, and it’s been even higher in April of 2013 than it was in 2012. For the first few months of 2012, his more aggressive approach was a huge success, as he was the best hitter in baseball at the end of last May. But, if we look at Hamilton’s overall numbers in the past calendar year, things aren’t as pretty.
Here are his numbers for the past 365 days:
Yikes. In the last year, Hamilton has been perfectly healthy, racking up a lot of playing time relative to his own norms, but he just hasn’t been very good. In fact, here’s the player with the closest comparable offensive statline to Hamilton in the last year.
For the last year, there really hasn’t been a distinguishable difference between Josh Hamilton and Jason Kubel. If Arizona picks up Jason Kubel’s 2014 option, the total value of his three year contract will reach $22.5 million, or $2.5 million less than the average annual value of one year of Hamilton’s five year contract with the Angels. Suffice it to say the Angels will not get their money’s worth if Hamilton performs like Jason Kubel.
He’ll probably be better than Kubel going forward. For one, he’s a significantly better defender, and he still runs the bases pretty well, so he has two non-hitting advantages over Arizona’s DH-in-the-outfield. But, look at the rest-of-season projections for both players from ZIPS and Steamer, which account for their respective starts to the 2013 season: Hamilton is forecast for a 115 wRC+ if you average the two systems, while Kubel comes in at 108. That’s a slight advantage for Hamilton, but not a dramatic one, and Kubel is actually a year younger than Hamilton, so aging curves will actually be slightly nicer to him than they will to the Angels pricey new right fielder.
A year ago, when Hamilton was hitting home runs left and right despite his absurd approach at the plate, he was a mystery, doing something that we’d never seen before. Now, though, the magic is gone, and Hamilton is just a hack who has terrible at-bats and makes a lot of outs. This isn’t a situation where Hamilton just needs to wait for inevitable regression to the mean to come iron out his bad luck. Josh Hamilton needs to take charge of the rest of his career and make significant changes to his approach at the plate.
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.
The league has adjusted to Josh Hamilton, Super Hack. His adjustment so far has been to get even more aggressive. So far this season, he’s swung at the first pitch in 52% of his at-bats, up from last year when he swung at the first pitch 48% of the time, and the previous year, when he swung at the first pitch 47% of the time. Back in 2010, When Josh Hamilton won the AL MVP, he swung at the first pitch just 41% of the time.
The Angels bet a lot of money on Josh Hamilton’s talent. That’s still in there, most likely, but Josh Hamilton’s decision making process is essentially invalidating his natural abilities. There’s a reason Delmon Young is terrible. Emulating him is a lousy idea, especially for a guy trying to live up to a $125 million contract. That deal looked like a big risk when it was signed, and a month in, the most fitting word I can find is regrettable. The Angels are locked into another $120 million for a guy who has been a league average player over the last year and isn’t showing any signs of fixing his underlying problems.
A friend in the game and I had lunch last week. During the conversation, he said “free agency is evil.” I don’t know that evil is the word I would use, but anyone watching Josh Hamilton play baseball right now is probably inclined to agree with him.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.