Josh Hamilton: King of Swings

Last night, Josh Hamilton and his teammates went up against Felix Hernandez in Seattle. Hamilton came to bat four times, seeing 13 pitches in the process. He swung at eight of them. Here are the pitch locations for when Josh Hamilton decided to swing the bat last night:

One of those eight pitches is within the box that PITCHF/x defines as the strike zone, and two others are close enough that they fall well within the margin for error, and very well might have been called strikes had he not swung at them. The other five, though? There’s a slider up and way off the plate outside, two change-ups down off the plate outside, a change-up in the dirt, and a slider at his ankles.

Now, here are the pitches that Hamilton let pass.

One curveball on the outer half that was taken for a called strike, and then four pitches that weren’t particularly close that Hamilton wisely let go by, all of which were called balls.

Between these two graphs, you can see the 13 pitches that Felix Hernandez threw Josh Hamilton last night. Two of them are within the strike zone. Two of them are close to the strike zone. Josh Hamilton saw four pitches worth swinging at last night. He swung eight times. This is Josh Hamilton.

PITCHF/x has labeled 49 percent of pitches this season as within the boundaries of the strike zone. 174 of the 175 qualified Major League hitters are within 10 percentage points of that average, ranging from Marco Scutaro (57.6 percent) to Bryan LaHair (41.3 percent). Then there’s Josh Hamilton, who has had just 35.9 percent of the pitches he’s been thrown classified as strikes. Hamilton is as far away from LaHair (the next lowest Zone% hitter) as LaHair is from Melky Cabrera, the guy who has the 53rd lowest Zone% out of the 175 batters in the sample.

Or, to put it another way, one standard deviation in Zone% this year is 3.2 percentage points. LaHair is 2.4 standard deviations away from the mean on the low end, and Scutaro is 2.7 standard deviations away on the high end. Josh Hamilton is 4.09 standard deviations from the mean. For a distribution approximating normal, 99.994 percent of data points are expected to be within four standard deviations. Josh Hamilton is not within this range.

Josh Hamilton is producing amazing results, but the way he’s getting them is perhaps even more incredible. He is not literally swinging at everything, but he’s coming about as close as we’ve ever seen to a big league hitter swinging at everything. There have been 770 qualified seasons over the last five years, and here is where Hamilton’s PITCHF/x swing rates rank out of those 770 batters:

O-Swing: 43.9% (765th)
Z-Swing: 82.4% (770th)

Hamilton is swinging at a higher rate of strikes than any batter has over the last five years, but because he’s destroying those pitches, opposing pitchers just aren’t throwing him very many strikes, so Hamilton has decided to swing at nearly half of the pitches he’s thrown outside of the zone as well. The only batters with a higher O-Swing rate in any season over the last five years? Starlin Castro and Clint Barmes this season, and Vladimir Guerrero in 2008, 2010, and 2011.

Castro and Guererro are aggressive on pitches outside of the strike zone because they have amazing contact abilities – in each of the four seasons that they had O-Swing rates higher than what Hamilton has now, they made contact on at least 80 percent of their swings. Barmes doesn’t have those kinds of contact skills, so he’s just a terrible hitter – his line this season is .171/.200/.285.

Hamilton doesn’t have those kinds of contact skills either. In fact, he doesn’t even have Barmes’ contact skills. Hamilton has made contact on just 66.3 percent of his swings this season. The only batters with lower contact rates over the last five years: Mark Reynolds (every year between 2008 and 2011), Adam Dunn (2012), Miguel Olivo (2011), and Russell Branyan (2009). Reynolds, Dunn, and Branyan were all productive sluggers who posted O-Swing rates below the league average, and their contact rates were low because they frequently swung through pitches in the zone. Olivo’s contact rate was low because – like Barmes – he’s a terrible hitter who regularly gets himself out by chasing pitches out of the strike zone.

Hamilton basically has the same approach as Barmes and Olivo, except he’s using that approach to be the best hitter in baseball this year. He’s Vladimir Guerrero if Vladimir Guerrero couldn’t hit those crazy pitches he swung at but was still an even better hitter than Vladimir Guerrero in his prime.

Logic says this can’t last. As long as Hamilton keeps chasing pitches way out of the strike zone, pitchers have no real incentive to throw him anything in the strike zone, especially when he’s crushing pitches in the strike zone with regularity. But, they’re already throwing two out of every three pitches to him outside of the zone, and he hasn’t stopped swinging at them yet.

Put simply, we’ve never seen a hitter succeed in this fashion before. High swing rates and low contact rates are essentially a recipe for disaster. The only other batter over the last five years to swing at 50 percent of the pitches he was thrown and make contact less than 70 percent of the time he swung was Miguel Olivo last year, and he posted a wRC+ of 71. Danny Espinosa is very close to joining the club (51.9% Swing%, 70.4% Contact%) this year, and his wRC+ is 73. Clint Barmes (57.4% Swing%, 71.4% Contact%) could join the club if he whiffs a lot tonight, and his wRC+ is 23. Josh Hamilton’s wRC+ is 215. Josh Hamilton is destroying the American League with the plate discipline of a guy who belongs on the bench.

Hector Noesi probably shouldn’t throw Josh Hamilton a strike tonight. I’m not sure anyone should ever throw Josh Hamilton a strike again.

Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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11 years ago

Solid analysis contextualized in a meaningful way, by placing Hamilton’s numbers among qualified seasons over the past five years. This is great work!