Adjusting to Josh Hamilton

The easy thing is talking about what Josh Hamilton has done. For his career, he’s hit .304, with 161 dingers. Last year, his WAR was 4.4, and before that it was 4.1, and before that he won the American League MVP. Hamilton just signed a substantial contract with the Angels, and the season most relevant to the Angels during negotiations would’ve been Hamilton’s 2012. Hamilton started impossibly strong and cooled off, finishing with excellent numbers overall. If the Angels didn’t think Josh Hamilton is excellent, they wouldn’t have guaranteed him an eighth of a billion dollars.

The harder thing is talking about what Josh Hamilton will do, precisely because we don’t and can’t know. We can only try to guess, based on what we assume to be relevant information, and when talking about Hamilton’s future — which everybody’s tried to do — it seems worthwhile to take a closer look at those 2012 trends. For some time, Hamilton was practically impossible to pitch to. Then he became easy to pitch to, at least relative to the earlier version of himself. Random statistical fluctuation, or something the Angels ought to be thinking about?

It can be sloppy to divide a season at an arbitrary date, but it’s also extremely simple and you can still get a point across, if there’s a point to be made. Through the end of last May, Josh Hamilton had a 1.184 OPS. He struck out in 19% of his plate appearances. Over the remainder of the season, Hamilton posted an .809 OPS, and he struck out in 29% of his plate appearances. Hamilton started off as the greatest player in the world, and he finished getting booed by his own hometown fans as the Rangers somehow missed the playoffs. One wonders what might have changed. There’s not always something that changes when numbers behave in this way, but it’s not a bad idea to check.

I wondered how pitchers might have adjusted their approaches to Hamilton after Hamilton demonstrated that he could just hit dingers whenever he wanted to. See, a neat thing about pitching is you’re not locked into a concrete game plan. You can make changes, in anticipation or even on the fly. Given what Hamilton was doing toward the start last year, it would make sense if pitchers and catchers gave their plans a second thought. To examine, we turn first to the plate-discipline data:

Zone% Z-Swing% O-Swing% Z-Contact% O-Contact%
Through May 36% 83% 43% 81% 54%
June on 38% 82% 42% 76% 47%

We don’t see anything in the first three columns of data. Pitchers threw roughly as many pitches in the strike zone, and Hamilton was swinging at the same locations, more or less. The last two columns are more interesting — Hamilton made less-frequent contact. At strikes and at balls. When it comes to investigating pitcher tendencies, what’s simpler than looking at raw fastball rate? Was Hamilton seeing fewer fastballs over the course of the year? Presented below is a graph, showing Hamilton’s rolling average fastball rate, based on 20-game samples:

That’s not necessarily very helpful, as we can identify relative maximums and relative minimums. But there does seem to be the hint of an overall drop as you move along the x-axis (Time). Hamilton’s fastball rate was already low; it only got lower. Let’s break this data down by handedness.

vs. RHP Fastball% Swing% Whiff% In Play%
Through May 55% 57% 29% 39%
June on 51% 58% 34% 27%

Against righties, Hamilton saw a reduced fastball rate, and an increased whiff rate. Fewer of his swings resulted in batted balls put in play (or hit for dingers).

vs. LHP Fastball% Swing% Whiff% In Play%
Through May 49% 65% 36% 33%
June on 43% 58% 44% 30%

Similar against lefties — fewer fastballs, more whiffs. The samples are smaller, of course, but still in the hundreds of pitches. Overall, combining righties and lefties, Hamilton’s rate of fastballs seen dropped from 53% to just under 49%. That’s small, and it might just be a consequence of Hamilton getting into more deep and/or pitcher-friendly counts, but it could be meaningful. It would help to have the Rangers’ overall rates of fastballs seen, for the sake of comparison.

There’s something else we can look at pretty easily, and it’s first pitches. Hamilton is a free swinger, and he’s not afraid to go after the first pitch of an at-bat. Against righties, Hamilton’s first-pitch fastball rate dropped from 60% to 52% after May. Against lefties, it dropped from 60% to 47% after May. These differences feel more substantial, and suggest that pitchers were trying to counter Hamilton’s aggressiveness. Interestingly, against lefties, Hamilton’s first-pitch swing rate dropped from 68% to 49% after May. The samples are limited, but Hamilton calmed himself down.

The data indicates that Josh Hamilton saw fewer fastballs last season after his torrid stretch of productivity. That should hardly come as a surprise, yet Hamilton’s initial fastball rate was already very low. Overall, Hamilton saw 50% fastballs. Out of 1,685 player seasons since 2002, Hamilton in 2012 had the sixth-lowest fastball rate. The lowest we’ve measured is 47%, for 2009 Ryan Howard. Hamilton was near an extreme.

Hamilton saw fewer fastballs, and fewer first-pitch fastballs, and his numbers got worse and his strikeouts went up. It will be interesting to see if this continues, to see if Hamilton sees even fewer fastballs still going forward. In that event, it will be interesting to see how Hamilton responds, to see if he can deal with it and continue to produce at a high level like the Angels expect. Last season, Hamilton didn’t stop swinging, and he missed more and more. If pitchers are aware of that, then it’s Hamilton who’s going to have to make the adjustments. The Angels, clearly, figure he’ll be fine. And, maybe, he will be.

Print This Post

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

20 Responses to “Adjusting to Josh Hamilton”

You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.
  1. Kyle says:

    His decline also coincided with his attempts to quit chewing. That can have a bigger impact than one might think.

    Vote -1 Vote +1

  2. Angelsjunky says:

    Thanks a lot for making pitchers aware of that, Jeff.

    The Angels Community

    Vote -1 Vote +1

    • Justin says:

      Matt Harrison: Hey Derek did you see Fangraphs this morning?
      Derek Holland: No, why?
      Matt Harrison: Well it looks like we can get Hamilton out this year by throwing fewer fastballs. They have real stats to back it up!
      Derek Holland: OMG I had no idea!
      Matt Harrison: Me neither!

      +36 Vote -1 Vote +1

  3. Dweez says:

    As someone else who started dipping too early I would agree that quitting is really, really tuff. I’m a Hamilton owner, and soon as I heard he was trying to quit chewing I knew why he was floundering. Hell, it ain’t easy fer anyone, and if you have addictive tendencies to boot? Just hope that chapter is over.

    Vote -1 Vote +1

  4. Ivan Grushenko says:

    Would it make sense to have a base stealer bat ahead of him so he could take 2B and/or 3B on off speed stuff?

    Vote -1 Vote +1

  5. Brian L says:

    I thought Dave’s thesis on Hamilton’s plate discipline back in mid-August made a lot of sense. Essentially pitchers adjusted to him in June by throwing their off-the-plate stuff even further off-the-plate, knowing he’d swing, which makes intuitive sense with the constant zone% and o-swing% but drastically declining o-contact%. Would be interesting to see if the data shows that Josh continued to adjust to this for the last month and a half of the season like Dave / Ron Wash mention he did in the 1st 2 weeks of August. – sry, didn’t want to mess around w/ linking for the first time

    Vote -1 Vote +1

  6. Rich says:

    At 64.7% Hamilton was dead last in overall contact % last year among qualified players.

    Vote -1 Vote +1

  7. Hurtlockertwo says:

    This makes me wonder how he will handle a new team, city, fans etc.? There has to be tremendous pressure to earn the big bucks and we fans are notoriously inpatient.

    Vote -1 Vote +1

  8. Robert J. Baumann says:

    It would help to have the Rangers’ overall rates of fastballs seen, for the sake of comparison.

    I’m not sure if this is exactly what you’re looking for, Jeff, since it’s the whole year, but this leaderboard can then be broken down to month-by-month splits. A little tedious, but it seems like it would give you what you’re looking for.

    Vote -1 Vote +1

    • Robert J. Baumann says:

      Based on that, it does look like the Rangers were seeing more fastballs as a team than Hamilton was as an individual, especially if you account for the fact that Hamilton’s numbers are included in the team numbers.

      Vote -1 Vote +1

  9. pft says:

    Baseball is a game of adjustments and readjustments. If he was a rookie the argument might be more convincing. However,
    Hamilton has been around long enough that his slump is more likely the result of injury or off field issues (eg stopping nicotine, pressing in the 2nd half due to it being a contract year, etc) than pitchers adjustments, although all three may have been at play to some degree.

    Vote -1 Vote +1

  10. baycommuter says:

    The Rangers did not miss the playoffs, though if you blinked you might have missed them.

    Vote -1 Vote +1

    • l1ay says:

      I think it’s gonna be a while before anyone considers losing the WC playoff play-in game a “playoff berth” although technically it is.

      The second WC is stupid, plain and simple.

      Vote -1 Vote +1

  11. Phil says:

    I am Rangers fan & I CANNOT BE HAPPIER AT HIS DEPARTURE!!! I’ve said they should part ways with him at the end of his contract since his MVP season.

    Basically everything in this article is right: he can’t hit anything but the fastball. Throw the man anything off the plate & he’s not hitting it.

    My theory for his ability to only hit the fastball, #NotAScout, is the four years of development he missed. Anyhow, have fun with him Angels.

    Vote -1 Vote +1

  12. Jeff says:

    I think his slump can be attributed mostly to the tobacco drama, the Nolan Ryan statement, and his impending free agency… its going to be hard to pitch around him with this angels lineup. Over the last couple of years, I always thought that Texas had one of the best hitting teams I had ever seen. A big part of that is due to Josh. It’ll be interesting to see how the Rangers O fares this season without him.

    Vote -1 Vote +1

  13. Cheesey says:

    Btw, the Rangers did not miss the playoffs, they were a 1st round elimination…

    Vote -1 Vote +1