Josh Hamilton is a talented baseball player. There's a reason that the free agent outfielder is looking for seven years and $175 million, but as of Monday, not a single one of the five teams talking to him have considered offering more than three. That's less than half, not just in years, but probably in total dollars as well, and it's not something you see often. Usually, there's one organization out there with the right amount of crazy and desperate dripping off of them that they're willing to talk bad ideas by the moonlight of the winter meetings. It's early yet, of course, but this is an odd first sign of things to come for Hamilton's free agency. And it's all because of the risk involved in acquiring him.
No, no. We aren't about to delve into the psychology of addiction and what playing in America's drunkest city would mean for an individual who battles related personal demons daily. We'll leave that to the actual psychologists. We'll be sticking to baseball here, where there are plenty of Hamilton-centric risks to concern ourselves with anyway.
Josh Hamilton was a total monster in the first two months of 2012. Through his first 47 games, the outfielder had gone deep 21 times, and looked like he could be in line to break Roger Maris' American League mark of 61 homers in a season. Instead, Hamilton hit another 22 home runs and finished at 43. That's great and all, but it was a significant drop in pace. While that's not entirely unexpected -- records like this tend to be longstanding for a reason -- there were other changes in his performance besides simply seeing his home run totals fall back to where they likely belong.
Hamilton hit just .245/.322/.487 from June 1 onward, with a .297 batting average on balls in play and those 22 homers. He drew a walk just under 10 percent of the time in this stretch, a rate that was better than his career or his 2011, but saw his strikeouts skyrocket. Hamilton punched out nearly 29 percent of the time in his last 429 plate appearances, a 10 percentage point jump from his first two months, and roughly the same increase from his career rate heading into 2012. That's significant, and it's worrisome.
Also consider that Hamilton's line above during this rough stretch included games in hitter-friendly Arlington. He hit .261/.340/.511 in Texas, and .229/.304/.464 on the road. While that .297 BABIP seems normal for most hitters, Hamilton's career mark even after 2012 is .335 -- he tends to be higher, because like many elite hitters, he's simply better than your average player at securing hits when he makes contact. (Example: Manny Ramirez, with his career likely all said and done, owns a career .338 BABIP.) You can see where missing that 30 points damaged his line significantly, and since he had fewer balls in play to begin with thanks to the ridiculous and sudden jumps in strikeout rate, there were fewer opportunities to rectify the situation.
Hamilton swung out of the zone more frequently, and he swung in the zone a little more often, but more swings simply resulted in missing with more regularity: his contact rate dropped from around a career rate hovering in the mid-70s to just 65 percent in 2012. He missed more often in the zone, but the more significant occurrence were his swings out of the strike zone. PITCHf/x says Hamilton swung and missed on more than half of the pitches he took a hack at outside of the strike zone. In past years, he chose his moments more wisely, and dropped below 61 percent just once in his entire career. This past season represented a serious change, and if you consider how he was in line with career norms for the first two months and 200-plus plate appearances, the drop during his struggles is likely even larger than the full-season data suggests.
The issues can be seen in his deeper counts. With two strikes on him, Hamilton punched out 51 percent of the time. The rest of the American League struck out in that situation just 39 percent of the time -- high, as you would expect given they are one strike away from heading back to the dugout, but nowhere near as lofty as Hamilton. He was still better-than-average overall in this situation, thanks to 11 two-strike homers on the season, but if his new approach to plate discipline holds, that can be limited in the future by going out of the zone more often and forcing him to chase. That's not a given, as Hamilton could adjust back, but it's something to consider: skills do erode with time, after all, and sometimes chasing like that can be a sign of things to come.
Back to his present plate discipline for the moment, though. Hamilton struggled in full counts, posting a line 60 percent below-average in that situation. It's just 69 plate appearances, so don't get too worked up about it, but he whiffed 30 percent of the time in that scenario, while the league was at 24 percent. Not as significant of a difference as his overall two-strike count, but still not great.
Swinging more often, striking out more often, and relying on the power that comes with his bat speed to bail him out. It's a strategy that can continue to work for a few years (say, maybe three of them), but once that bat speed starts to go, things could get ugly. Since Hamilton is going to be 32 years old in 2013, it might not take long for that to happen. This is why -- among other things -- you see teams loathe to hand Hamilton the kind of contract someone with his track record of success would normally get. There's just so much risk here that the last four months of 2012 were a portent of something much worse, and no one wants to be on the hook for that for longer than they have to be.
It's worth remembering, though, that not everyone who starts to slide because of age and a slip in plate discipline remains that way forever. Boston has their own elite slugger who has bounced back from that -- a few times, in fact -- in David Ortiz. From a Baseball Prospectus Player Profile in 2009:
Despite claims that his wrist is healthy from both Ortiz and his hitting coach, Dave Magadan, the Dominican has amassed a paltry .221/.333/.319 line over his first 138 plate appearances. Magadan stated that Ortiz had his hands up too high before swinging, which lengthened his swing; this has come with some serious side effects, reducing his bat speed while making some otherwise unimpressive fastballs look like they are coming out of David Price's hand...
...Ortiz hasn't had the timing to make solid contact, and has instead hit just .221 while popping out on over 16 percent of his fly balls. He has yet to homer, even though we are approaching mid-May, in a year where the long ball is flying out of parks left and right. He hasn't been able to hit the ball the other way and take advantage of the Green Monster for wall balls and towering homers either, because pitchers are challenging him inside, knowing that he's having trouble catching up. Not only that, but they are challenging him earlier in the count; Ortiz is seeing first-pitch strikes 58 percent of the time, right at the league average and well above the rates he has seen the past few seasons, when he was one of the dominant sluggers in the game.
As a result, though Ortiz is seeing more pitches per plate appearance, he isn't seeing better pitches to hit. He's chasing more balls out of the zone, and though he's been able to catch up to them and hit them at the same rate as in previous years, he's not making good contact on them; the old Ortiz would have sat on those pitches and forced a pitcher to go back in the zone, but with more pitchers putting him in the hole early, he hasn't been able to control the count.
It took some time, even with a quality hitting coach, to right Ortiz's aging ship. The Rangers fired hitting coach Thad Bosley in mid-2011, then replaced his replacement, Scott Coolbaugh, once this off-season began (coincidentally enough, with Magadan). It's possible that Hamilton similarly has something going on that needs to be addressed, possibly a holdover from his earlier locked-in start to the year, that Coolbaugh was unable to solve. It makes sense, actually: pitchers began to treat the strike zone as if it were Josh Hamilton's private domain, but when he began to chase more outside of the zone, they gladly continued to throw there since it lessened the threat against them even if he weren't chase-happy.
Like Magadan with Ortiz, someone needs to whack Hamilton over the head with a newspaper every time he swings at a pitch he can't do anything with until Pavlov takes over and everyone is happy. Of course, that's just a theory, and it's an expensive one to have to back up, but that's why no one is handing Hamilton a novelty check for $175 million*, and are instead trying to talk him into halving his demands.
*Press conferences for new players would be so much better with giant novelty checks.
It's unlikely Hamilton will sign for three years. Someone will probably end up getting him entirely because they offer more than that. They might not even be crazy for doing so, especially if they can spot the flaw in Hamilton's approach -- i.e., get him to stop swinging outside so much -- and squeeze out a few more years of the Hamilton that Rangers fans have known and loved. There is risk that can't be ignored here, though, risk that says maybe he isn't going to pull an Ortiz -- Ortiz's resurgence is special for a reason, because it's not something that happens often. With that in mind, though, remember that the upside of Hamilton is greater than any other free agent, and to ignore him entirely even on a short-term deal because of that risk is likely to a club's detriment.