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:

Year Fastball Slider Cutter Curve Change Split-finger Other
2007 59.0% 14.6% 2.6% 8.8% 13.7% 1.4% 2.7%
2008 53.4% 17.3% 3.0% 9.4% 14.2% 1.5% 3.1%
2009 53.0% 18.3% 3.1% 11.9% 11.8% 2.0% 1.4%
2010 46.9% 14.3% 6.1% 13.5% 15.5% 3.0% 3.0%
2011 50.7% 14.3% 5.8% 12.3% 14.4% 2.3% 3.2%
2012 44.6% 15.7% 5.8% 14.1% 16.4% 3.3% 2.0%
2013 42.0% 16.0% 6.9% 16.9% 15.7% 2.5% 2.7%

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.


Have Pitchers Solved the Josh Hamilton Equation? — 14 Comments

  1. Illuminating use of the pitch stats — nice work! I remember watching Howard Johnson thrive for the Mets in the late 1980s as a dead fastball hitter. Then, about the time HoJo reached the age Hamilton is now, pitchers seemed to just stop throwing him fastballs and Johnson never recovered. Perhaps there is an age point at which guys who were more vulnerable to the curve in the first place reach a tipping point where they just can’t hit, or lay off, major league breaking stuff anymore, and pitchers quickly pick up on that. (Of course HoJo at his peak was never a hitter of the Josh Hamilton level.)

  2. I’d be keen to know what the league-wide curveball rate is; is there an easy way to find that, via Fangraphs or otherwise? I’m kind of an idiot, better suited to making jokes about baseball than actually performing useful analysis, but I do find this sort of minutia fascinating.

    I’m also rapidly becoming the official HHS pedant: yikes, David! Get that extraneous apostrophe out of your post title! 😉

  3. I remember Bill James (or perhaps it was Tom Tango) saying that all hitters are fastball hitters. And sure enough, here’s some data from Bill James online comparing hitting performance on balls in play for fastballs vs curveballs. The difference is quite stark: fastballs (.282 batting average, .447 slugging), curveballs (.221 batting average, .343 slugging percentage).


    Perhaps there are some hitters out there that do better against breaking balls than they do against fastballs. But my guess is that there aren’t many.

    • NL pitchers who get to experience what it’s like to bat against a good fastball seem less reluctant to use the pitch than their AL brethren.

      8 of the 10 hitters seeing the most fastballs are from the NL including, surprisingly, Matt Holliday. Another surprise – Mike Trout is in 20th spot, seeing 61.3% fastballs.

      As David mentioned, Josh Hamilton sees the fewest fastballs, and it’s not close. Second fewest rate to Hamilton’s 41.6% is Wilin Rosario at 43.7%. Only 8 others are below 50%, including Jose Bautista, David Ortiz and Mark Reynolds. Andrew McCutchen, Nelson Cruz and Ryan Howard (makes sense) are just over 50%.

      Interestingly, the same pitchers who are going after Mike Trout with fastballs are doing the opposite with Mark Trumbo who sees just 51.1% heaters.

    • Actually, on a per pitch basis, FanGraphs has batters as more effective hitting curves than fastballs so far this season. Also better hitting curves in 2011. But, year-in and year-out, hitters fare better with the fastball. The pitches hitters really struggle with are the slider and cutter.

      Here are the Runs Above (Below) Average per 100 Pitches, by type of pitch (Fastball, Slider, Cutter, Curve, Change, Split-Finger, Knuckle).

      Season	wFB/C	wSL/C	wCT/C	wCB/C	wCH/C	wSF/C	wKN/C
      2002	0.21	-0.56		-0.23	-0.42	-1.2	 0.05
      2003	0.28	-0.58		-0.33	-0.39	-2.01	-0.05
      2004	0.15	-0.49	-0.46	-0.08	-0.06	-1.34	 0.81
      2005	0.17	-0.53	-0.19	-0.2	-0.03	-1.15	-0.11
      2006	0.18	-0.57	-0.27	-0.15	 0.14	-1.03	 0
      2007	0.17	-0.54	-0.32	 0.05	-0.13	-0.37	 0.49
      2008	0.13	-0.48	-0.48	-0.1	 0.12	 0.16	 0.49
      2009	0.2	-0.54	-0.53	-0.2	 0.01	 0.04	 0.36
      2010	0.11	-0.43	-0.17	 0.07	-0.07	-0.07	 0.23
      2011	0.1	-0.5	-0.18	 0.13	-0.02	-0.01	 0.79
      2012	0.12	-0.48	-0.03	-0.02	 0.06	-0.29	-0.88
      2013	0.09	-0.48	-0.18	 0.11	-0.03	-0.19	 0.31
    • A question—semi-rhetorical, Doug:

      If the fastball is the easiest pitch to hit, why is it the most commonly thrown?

      A fairly famous definition:

      “Hitting is timing. Pitching is destroying the hitter’s timing.”—Warren Spahn

  4. I’ve watched almost the entirety of Josh’s at-bats since 2009. The pitchers have changed their approach with him since that insane hot streak he had to start 2012, but there has been a concrete decline in Josh’s physical tools at the plate.

    The change in approach by the league’s pitchers wouldn’t affect a hitter at Josh’s prior level nearly as much as it has in reality. His physical tools have fallen off a cliff. Lefties can simply overpower him with fastballs and breaking junk off the plate, while RHPs have discovered he now has a giant hole down and in. He’s lost batspeed and his overall balance has appreciably changed at the plate.

  5. Great analysis here. I want to forever memorialize Josh Hamilton’s inability to hit the breaking ball by taking a Josh Hamilton baseball card and write, “take this breaking ball, josh!”

    • Albert’s problems are quite a bit simpler mostly because they’re injury related. His knee and foot problems have sapped his legs of the power they once had, which is why his isolated slugging % (ISO) is nearly 100 points below his career average. Pujols has also become less picky about which pitches he’s willing to swing at and in turn his average and OBP have suffered. In reality his new-found willingness to swing is probably just a byproduct of pitchers attacking him in the zone more. During his heyday in STL opponents were throwing him strikes about 55-56% of the time. In each of the last 3 seasons that number’s been above 60%.

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