Josh Hamilton: King of Swings

Last night, Josh Hamilton and his teammates went up against Felix Hernandez in Seattle. Hamilton came to bat four times, seeing 13 pitches in the process. He swung at eight of them. Here are the pitch locations for when Josh Hamilton decided to swing the bat last night:

One of those eight pitches is within the box that PITCHF/x defines as the strike zone, and two others are close enough that they fall well within the margin for error, and very well might have been called strikes had he not swung at them. The other five, though? There’s a slider up and way off the plate outside, two change-ups down off the plate outside, a change-up in the dirt, and a slider at his ankles.

Now, here are the pitches that Hamilton let pass.

One curveball on the outer half that was taken for a called strike, and then four pitches that weren’t particularly close that Hamilton wisely let go by, all of which were called balls.

Between these two graphs, you can see the 13 pitches that Felix Hernandez threw Josh Hamilton last night. Two of them are within the strike zone. Two of them are close to the strike zone. Josh Hamilton saw four pitches worth swinging at last night. He swung eight times. This is Josh Hamilton.

PITCHF/x has labeled 49 percent of pitches this season as within the boundaries of the strike zone. 174 of the 175 qualified Major League hitters are within 10 percentage points of that average, ranging from Marco Scutaro (57.6 percent) to Bryan LaHair (41.3 percent). Then there’s Josh Hamilton, who has had just 35.9 percent of the pitches he’s been thrown classified as strikes. Hamilton is as far away from LaHair (the next lowest Zone% hitter) as LaHair is from Melky Cabrera, the guy who has the 53rd lowest Zone% out of the 175 batters in the sample.

Or, to put it another way, one standard deviation in Zone% this year is 3.2 percentage points. LaHair is 2.4 standard deviations away from the mean on the low end, and Scutaro is 2.7 standard deviations away on the high end. Josh Hamilton is 4.09 standard deviations from the mean. For a distribution approximating normal, 99.994 percent of data points are expected to be within four standard deviations. Josh Hamilton is not within this range.

Josh Hamilton is producing amazing results, but the way he’s getting them is perhaps even more incredible. He is not literally swinging at everything, but he’s coming about as close as we’ve ever seen to a big league hitter swinging at everything. There have been 770 qualified seasons over the last five years, and here is where Hamilton’s PITCHF/x swing rates rank out of those 770 batters:

O-Swing: 43.9% (765th)
Z-Swing: 82.4% (770th)

Hamilton is swinging at a higher rate of strikes than any batter has over the last five years, but because he’s destroying those pitches, opposing pitchers just aren’t throwing him very many strikes, so Hamilton has decided to swing at nearly half of the pitches he’s thrown outside of the zone as well. The only batters with a higher O-Swing rate in any season over the last five years? Starlin Castro and Clint Barmes this season, and Vladimir Guerrero in 2008, 2010, and 2011.

Castro and Guererro are aggressive on pitches outside of the strike zone because they have amazing contact abilities – in each of the four seasons that they had O-Swing rates higher than what Hamilton has now, they made contact on at least 80 percent of their swings. Barmes doesn’t have those kinds of contact skills, so he’s just a terrible hitter – his line this season is .171/.200/.285.

Hamilton doesn’t have those kinds of contact skills either. In fact, he doesn’t even have Barmes’ contact skills. Hamilton has made contact on just 66.3 percent of his swings this season. The only batters with lower contact rates over the last five years: Mark Reynolds (every year between 2008 and 2011), Adam Dunn (2012), Miguel Olivo (2011), and Russell Branyan (2009). Reynolds, Dunn, and Branyan were all productive sluggers who posted O-Swing rates below the league average, and their contact rates were low because they frequently swung through pitches in the zone. Olivo’s contact rate was low because – like Barmes – he’s a terrible hitter who regularly gets himself out by chasing pitches out of the strike zone.

Hamilton basically has the same approach as Barmes and Olivo, except he’s using that approach to be the best hitter in baseball this year. He’s Vladimir Guerrero if Vladimir Guerrero couldn’t hit those crazy pitches he swung at but was still an even better hitter than Vladimir Guerrero in his prime.

Logic says this can’t last. As long as Hamilton keeps chasing pitches way out of the strike zone, pitchers have no real incentive to throw him anything in the strike zone, especially when he’s crushing pitches in the strike zone with regularity. But, they’re already throwing two out of every three pitches to him outside of the zone, and he hasn’t stopped swinging at them yet.

Put simply, we’ve never seen a hitter succeed in this fashion before. High swing rates and low contact rates are essentially a recipe for disaster. The only other batter over the last five years to swing at 50 percent of the pitches he was thrown and make contact less than 70 percent of the time he swung was Miguel Olivo last year, and he posted a wRC+ of 71. Danny Espinosa is very close to joining the club (51.9% Swing%, 70.4% Contact%) this year, and his wRC+ is 73. Clint Barmes (57.4% Swing%, 71.4% Contact%) could join the club if he whiffs a lot tonight, and his wRC+ is 23. Josh Hamilton’s wRC+ is 215. Josh Hamilton is destroying the American League with the plate discipline of a guy who belongs on the bench.

Hector Noesi probably shouldn’t throw Josh Hamilton a strike tonight. I’m not sure anyone should ever throw Josh Hamilton a strike again.

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Dave is a co-founder of and contributes to the Wall Street Journal.

28 Responses to “Josh Hamilton: King of Swings”

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  1. BookWorm says:

    Solid analysis contextualized in a meaningful way, by placing Hamilton’s numbers among qualified seasons over the past five years. This is great work!

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  2. LuckyStrikes says:

    Agree, this is fascinating stuff. Even more fascinating if he keeps it up for a while longer (not likely). What would really be interesting though is to compare this to his MVP season to see the difference. He has elite skills for sure, but this “new” approach may not last long. He said in an interview several weeks ago (just after his ridiculous 8 HR week) that he knew he was swinging at everything and that he would adjust as soon as pitchers stopped throwing him strikes. That time is now.

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  3. DSC says:

    Odd to call Reynolds productive in any way, though. But most sabermetric stuff can see things myopically.

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    • Person says:

      Odd to read Fangraphs if you don’t appreciate that Mark Reynolds has been a productive hitter.

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      • gobears says:

        Productive hitter, maybe, but not a productive player. Only two seasons over 2 WAR, and one over 3. Basically replacement level since he joined the O’s in 2011. Not someone whose time on the DL bothers me too much.

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  4. Nate says:

    I can’t figure out why the Mariners haven’t traded for Mark Reynolds yet.

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    • DSC says:

      You dislike the Mariners that much?

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      • joser says:

        He probably was just alluding to all the ex- and current Mariners mentioned in the article — Olivo, Branyan, and LaHair. He doesn’t have enough PAs to qualify, but perennial call-up Carlos Peguero has this “skillset” too.

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      • robert mitchell says:

        Stand at attention homes,when u mention Branyan’s name if your a Mariner’s fan or even if you are not.All he did was lead the M’S in homers,31 in 431 ab’s[missing final 5 weeks of the 2009 season,back inj.] and again in 2010 with 15 in less than half a season,57 games to be exact in 205 at bats!And lead in slugging&OBS both years.All for 2mill.$1.5 in 2009&$500,000 in 2010 when he was re acquired.With Seattle’s pitiful offense,where u getting that kind of bang for da buck?

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  5. Jimmy says:

    Where exactly is the cutoff for when he should start accepting the walk? As long as he continues to crush the ball, it makes sense for him to chase, but how far do his numbers have to drop before it makes more sense to take the walk?

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  6. Soxy says:

    My guess is he hits a slump at some point and adjusts by not bein g as agressive on pitches outside the zone. Great piece, interesting stuff.

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  7. AL Eastbound says:

    This is Brett Lawrie’s idol!

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  8. chuckb says:

    This is really great stuff.

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  9. moose says:

    great article. fascinating

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  10. Keystone Heavy says:

    I have to say, I’ve been pretty excited when Hamilton gets intentionally walked this year. Not because it usually means that Beltre will have 2 or 3 men on base in a game that is close late. But because there may be a legitimate chance that Hamilton swings, which would be pretty epic.

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  11. CheeseWhiz says:

    One of the most facinating articles I’ve read on Fangraphs. Thanks Dave, great stuff!

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  12. CabreraDeath says:

    Great article, Dave.

    As a Pirates fan, I had thought that any article that can plausibly compare Hamilton with Barmes – by any metric – would have to originate from The Onion. Alas, Barmes is simply attempting to become the next Josh Hamilton. It all makes perfect sense now….

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  13. utb says:

    While he is swinging at a ridiculous amount of pitches, it might also be important to note that his walk rate was dramatically increased over the last month. While it may not seem overly significant, it at least suggests that Hamilton has slowly began to be slightly more selective.

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  14. BurleighGrimes says:

    This is a great article with extremely interesting analysis.

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  15. Phantom Stranger says:

    Hamilton has a number of different swings he takes if you watch enough of his at-bats. He’s definitely swinging for the fences this season more than he ever has before. He can actually cut down on his swing pretty well and take a 2-strike approach, which is why he’s always had a good batting average.

    I see a lot of people compare him to Vladimir, but their swings and approaches to an at-bat are really nothing alike. Josh has a beautiful swing that produces more power in the strike zone, while Vlad would often alter his balance to go outside the normal strike zone. Vlad had better pure contact skills but his willingness to compromise his stance pitch to pitch ultimately lowered his slugging.

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  16. schlomsd says:

    Interesting in that you call the low fastball “close enough that they fall well within the margin for error, and very well might have been called strikes had he not swung at them.” The pitch that Brett Lawrie flipped out on was even closer to the plate and the common consensus amongst most analysts was that the umpire called the pitch a strike out of spite because Lawrie “showed him up” on the pitch before.

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    • DC says:

      I wonder if you looked at the freeze frame of the Lawrie pitches. Pitch f/x do not lie, but neither does pictures of actual pitch.

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  17. GotHeem says:

    One of the best articles I’ve read all year. Well done Dave.

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  18. fergie348 says:

    This is the kind of analysis I come to Fangraphs for – Bravo, Dave..

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  19. Mario Mendoza of commenters says:

    Does Hamilton read FG? He took a lot of pitches last night, including four straight to start is evening.

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  20. adohaj says:

    40% HR/FB explains it all

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