A month ago, I wrote a piece highlighting the contrast between Josh Hamilton’s results (amazing!) and Josh Hamilton’s approach at the plate (awful!). At that time, Hamilton was succeeding with a plan of attack that could essentially be described as swing-at-absolutely-everything. I finished the piece by saying that I wasn’t sure pitchers should throw Hamilton a strike ever again.
Well, after two months of getting abused, pitchers have adjusted to Hamilton. They’re still throwing him strikes on occasion, but nearly every pitcher is attacking Hamilton the same way now: away, away, away.
Courtesy of TexasLeaguers.com, here are the pitch locations for pitches that Hamilton has chosen to swing at in June.
The inner half of the plate has just been abandoned, and now, nearly every pitch Hamilton sees is middle-away. And remember, that’s the plot of pitches that Hamilton has chased, so all those pitches down and away aren’t pitches that he let go — he decided to try and hit all those too. The first two months provided some positive reinforcement that his way works, but June has provided a harsh reality check. After being the best hitter in baseball for the first two months of the season, Hamilton has hit just .197/.282/.382 in June, and he’s not showing any signs of adapting his approach at the plate.
You might look at his June walk rate (10.6%) and think that he’s making an effort to take more walks, essentially we’re just seeing the inverse of what we talked about with Jason Heyward yesterday — the walks are a result of his at-bats continuing because he’s swinging and missing more often. Here are his contact rate on pitches out of the strike zone, by month:
In the first two months of the season, pitchers were still pitching around Hamilton, but he was making contact on pitches out of the zone. As pitchers have just kept expanding their locations to get further and further from the plate, Hamilton simply hasn’t started taking more pitches in response. He swung at 42% of pitches out of the zone in April, 44% in May, and 42% in June. The quality of pitches he’s seeing is declining, but not the rate at which Hamilton is swinging at them. And now, it’s costing him outs.
Since a picture is worth a thousand words, and a moving picture is worth exponentially more, here are a couple of GIFs from Hamilton’s at-bats against Colorado over the weekend.
Versus Christian Friedrich, in the bottom of the third inning on Sunday:
Wilin Rosario is set up so far off the plate that there’s almost no chance that the pitch is going to be in the strike zone, and then the pitch is so far to his left that he still has to slide his feet over to try and keep it in front of him. This pitch would have probably hit a right-handed batter. Hamilton swung and missed for strike three.
Okay, but that’s a breaking ball from a lefty, and a lot of LHBs have problems with that pitch. Here’s Hamilton in the 8th inning against Guillermo Moscoso, a bad right-handed pitcher.
Rosario wanted it down and away, but Moscosco missed his spot and ended up throwing it up and away. Didn’t matter. Hamilton was swinging no matter where the pitch was, and Moscoso missed in a spot where he still couldn’t reach it.
Hamilton doesn’t have to become Joey Votto at the plate. He can be an aggressive hitter and still succeed through sheer athletic abilities. But, perhaps someone should show him a plot of the pitches that Joey Votto has swung at this month. Votto is having an insane June, hitting .418/.520/.747 over the last 25 days. He’s not exactly living in a line-up of feared hitters, either, so pitchers have every incentive to pitch around the Reds first baseman. And yet, his swing locations are remarkably different than Hamilton’s:
Votto just doesn’t really swing at pitches on the outside corner. It’s not because he can’t hit them — he’s probably the best opposite field hitter in baseball right now — but because he can better hit a pitch middle-in, and the only way to get a pitcher to come inside is to get into a count where they can’t afford to nibble. Because pitchers know that they can’t just go away on every pitch and get him to chase, Votto gets pitches middle-in that Hamilton does not. It’s not just about drawing walks – it’s about giving yourself the best chance to get a pitch you can crush.
Hamilton can point to the first two months of the season as evidence that his approach can work, but as we talked about a month ago, there just aren’t any historical examples of that approach working over a long period of time. The batter/pitcher match-up is a never-ending game of adjustments, and pitchers have adjusted to Josh Hamilton’s approach. His failure to counter that adjustment is at the heart of his struggles this month, and while he might be good enough to produce with a poor approach at the plate, even he’s not good enough to produce at a high level without some willingness to take pitches.
The Rangers shouldn’t care about getting Josh Hamilton to walk more. Josh Hamilton is a great player even without a lot of walks. Josh Hamilton is not a great player without at least average strikeout rates rates, though, and the pitches that Hamilton are swinging at now result in a lot of strikeouts, even for a guy with ridiculously great plate coverage.
The Rangers know about this. Hamilton knows about this. The question is whether he can adapt enough to force pitchers to do something different. Right now, there is no thinking involved in facing Josh Hamilton — just throw the ball as far outside as humanly possible and hope Hamilton doesn’t hit it over the wall. He needs to make pitcher’s realize that plan won’t work every time. The scale has just tipped too far, and there’s no longer any reason for pitchers to do anything but pound Hamilton away. Until he stops swinging at that pitch, he’ll never see another pitch on the inner half again.
It’s hard to imagine he won’t be able to make the adjustment. He’s too good to keep getting himself out this often, and he’s got $100 million reasons to not put his weaknesses on full display all summer long. That said, the clock is ticking. The book on Hamilton is out, and it is now on him to make an adjustment.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.