Have Pitchers Solved the Josh Hamilton Equation?
For the better part of the past 6 years, Josh Hamilton has been an absolute force for pitchers to deal with. Just look at his list of accomplishments: one MVP award, 5 All-Star appearances, a majestic power display in the ’08 Home Run Derby, 2 AL pennants, and a .304/.363/.549 slash line with 161 homers to boot. Pitchers just couldn’t figure this guy out and thanks in part to Hamilton, the Rangers were able to have more success over the past 5 years than at any other point in the franchise’s history.
But the shine started to fade on Hamilton sometime around midseason last year. The then-Ranger struggled mightily during the 2nd half of 2012, hitting .259 (compared to .308 before the break), while dealing with a myriad of personal and health issues. As the offseason rolled around the Rangers decided that Hamilton’s baggage outweighed his production. Instead, the division rival Los Angeles Angels swooped in to nab Hamilton in the hopes that they could form a modern day Murderer’s Row.
Instead, Hamilton has completely floundered in his new home, hitting just .215 with 10 homers and 27 RBI through what amounts to half a season worth of games. His on-base percentage is lower than that of hitting luminaries like Kurt Suzuki and Delmon Young and he’s been borderline unwatchable with runners on base, hitting just .150 in 140 at-bats. That’s not exactly what the Angels were hoping for when the signed the outfielder to a 5 year/$133 million dollar deal. So, what’s gone wrong for Hamilton? Has the league caught finally caught up to him? Or is Hamilton just losing a step to Father Time?
One of the first things you should notice about Hamilton this season is that he is walking less than ever before (6.4% walk rate) while simultaneously striking as much as he ever has (his 25.3% strikeout rate is a hair lower than last year’s career high). That’s obviously bad news for any hitter, but what does it actually mean? Is Hamilton swinging at pitches out of the zone more often? Or do pitchers just feel more comfortable attacking him in the strike zone?
Well, according to Fangraphs, Hamilton isn’t exactly doing either. Yes, he’s swinging at 41% of all pitches thrown outside of the strike zone but that’s basically the norm for his career. Josh Hamilton has always been a good bad-ball hitter, that’s just who he is. Hamilton is also swinging at 80% of the pitches within the strike zone, which is also right around his career average. He’s also seeing 3.6 pitches per at-bat, exactly his career average so, at least in terms of his approach, Josh Hamilton isn’t doing anything all that different. He’s still looking to be aggressive early in the count and he is still looking to drive the ball.
Instead, what’s changed for Hamilton is the way opposing pitchers are approaching him as a hitter. Just take a look at Hamilton’s pitch chart over the course of his career:
What you’ll notice in the chart above is that opposing pitchers have fed Josh Hamilton a steady diet of breaking balls and it appears to be throwing his timing off. Hamilton has always been a fastball hitter first and foremost, and pitchers are completely staying away from the heater. Hamilton has been thrown a fastball on just 42% of the pitches he’s seen this year, good for the lowest rate in the Majors and it’s obviously starting to frustrate the powerful lefty. In fact, Hamilton’s on pace to see the lowest percentage of fastballs since Pitch Data came into existence back in 2002.
Rather than giving in to the prodigious slugger, pitchers are hammering him with breaking balls. No hitter in baseball has seen a higher percentage of curveballs (16.9%) than Hamilton and only 7 batters have faced a higher percentage of change-ups. By repeatedly slinging sliders, curves, and change-ups, pitchers are hoping to get Hamilton to roll over, and thus far the Angels right fielder has been more than happy to oblige. As long as pitchers continue to attack Hamilton with a steady diet of breaking balls, the slugger’s production will continue to look lean.
Big thanks to Fangraphs and Baseball Reference for the statistical help.
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