Will Hamilton’s Ribs Hold Him Back?

For more than a month now the Rangers have been without their star center fielder Josh Hamilton. True, he has been back in the lineup every day since October 1, but his presence has been greatly missed. Since his return he is just 4 for 29 with one extra base hit, including 2 for 18 and no XBH in the ALDS against Tampa Bay. It’s natural to wonder, then, whether his ribs are still causing him problems — and further, if those problems will continue to affect him in the ALCS.

Unfortunately, there is no objective way to definitively answer the question posed in the headline. We can look at his swing and we can look at his numbers, but it all leads to educated guesswork. But we might as well go ahead and examine the contributing factors, since Hamilton’s performance will mean a lot to the Rangers’ chances of defeating the Yankees.

The numbers

We have just 32 PA worth of data on Hamilton since he returned from the injury layoff, so there’s not much we can do with it. The sample suggests that his ribs have hindered his performance, but it 1) doesn’t prove that conclusively and 2) offers little predictive information. What, then, can the numbers tell us?

My first thought was to examine Hamilton’s injury history and look for prior rib injuries. On April 22 of last year Hamilton got a day off because of what was termed a ribs contusion. He did pinch hit in that game, and then came back to start in each of the next three games, going 4 for 12 with a homer. He didn’t start the following day, but instead struck out in a pinch hitting appearance. That was the last game he’d play until May 12. The Rangers placed him on the DL with strained ribs.

The two injuries are a bit different. The 2009 injury was a muscle strain, while this year Hamilton suffered two fractured rib bones. Intuitively it seems as though a muscle injury in that area would affect a swing to a greater degree, since much of a player’s power is generated from his core. The fractured ribs certainly cause discomfort, but does that affect the swing to a greater degree? I’m not sure.

In the 67 PA following Hamilton’s return from the DL, he went just 14 for 59 (.237) with six walks (.299 OBP) and nine extra base hits (.542 SLG). So when he made contact the ball went a long way. But he had trouble in general making contact. He struck out 16 times in 59 AB (27%), while his career rate is less than a third of that. he did display a similar tendency in the ALDS, striking out in 1/3 of his AB. Unfortunately, he did not display the same kind of power, as both of his hits were singles.

The scouting

I’ve yet to see a scout, anonymous or otherwise, opine on Hamilton’s swing, so I’m not sure if there is anything noticeably wrong with it. One thing that a few people did note is that the Rays rarely showed Hamilton a fastball in the series. That, compounded with his lack of live action, might have played a part in his ALDS slump. From the Star-Telegram:

Hamilton missed almost all of September because of fractured ribs. While he said he’s not using that as a reason for his struggles, manager Ron Washington believes that might be playing a role.

“Josh hasn’t seen live pitching in a month and he’s up there fighting, and he’s fighting hard,” Washington said. “It’s not an excuse, but he hasn’t seen pitching in a while, and he is facing some pretty good pitching right now.”

The Rays have rarely shown Hamilton a fastball in the series, and when they have, he hasn’t timed it well.

According to the PitchFX data, the Rays threw Hamilton just 17 four-seam fastballs and 13 two-seamers. He saw 24 curveballs, 15 changeups, five sliders, and a sinker as well. Unsurprisingly, he put the four-seamers in play more than any other pitch. But he whiffed badly when challenged with curves and changes.

The match-ups

The only remaining question is of whether this will carry over into the ALCS — which, as stated above, does not have a definitive answer. Hamilton now has 32 PA under his belt since returning, so perhaps he’ll be in a better rhythm when he steps to the plate on Friday. Or maybe the ribs will continue to bother him.

If one thing is for certain, it’s that Hamilton will get no help from Game 1 starter CC Sabathia. He uses his slider heavily against left-handed hitters, and Hamilton will likely see a steady diet of them. He also has a two-seamer with plenty of horizontal movement. It’s in Game 2 that we’ll get a decent gauge of Hamilton’s recovery. He’ll face Phil Hughes, who leans heavily on his four-seamer. By that point we should have a better idea of how Hamilton’s ribs are affecting him.

Josh Hamilton’s condition will play a large part in how the Rangers’ offense fares in the ALCS. The team hit just .253/.286/.437 in its five games against the Rays, and most of that came from Ian Kinsler and Nelson Cruz. They can’t carry the team by themselves. They’ll need their main man, their MVP, to produce against the Yankees. Without Hamilton hitting in the way that he’s capable, the offense could again fall flat.

Joe also writes about the Yankees at River Ave. Blues.

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13 years ago

Honestly, this is a great question but perhaps a little beyond the purview of Fangraphs.

To me, it’s the kind of thing you could ask a medical expert in conjunction with a scout who could break down if Hamilton’s swing was different pre and post rib injury, and then consult with a medical expert to see if those differences could be caused by the rib injury and restrictions on certain types of movement.

I think there are some things that sabermetrics does a lot better than actual scouting. Unfortunately, this is not one of those things.