Josh Hamilton Needs to Start Making Adjustments

A month ago, I wrote a piece highlighting the contrast between Josh Hamilton‘s results (amazing!) and Josh Hamilton’s approach at the plate (awful!). At that time, Hamilton was succeeding with a plan of attack that could essentially be described as swing-at-absolutely-everything. I finished the piece by saying that I wasn’t sure pitchers should throw Hamilton a strike ever again.

Well, after two months of getting abused, pitchers have adjusted to Hamilton. They’re still throwing him strikes on occasion, but nearly every pitcher is attacking Hamilton the same way now: away, away, away.

Courtesy of TexasLeaguers.com, here are the pitch locations for pitches that Hamilton has chosen to swing at in June.

The inner half of the plate has just been abandoned, and now, nearly every pitch Hamilton sees is middle-away. And remember, that’s the plot of pitches that Hamilton has chased, so all those pitches down and away aren’t pitches that he let go — he decided to try and hit all those too. The first two months provided some positive reinforcement that his way works, but June has provided a harsh reality check. After being the best hitter in baseball for the first two months of the season, Hamilton has hit just .197/.282/.382 in June, and he’s not showing any signs of adapting his approach at the plate.

You might look at his June walk rate (10.6%) and think that he’s making an effort to take more walks, essentially we’re just seeing the inverse of what we talked about with Jason Heyward yesterday — the walks are a result of his at-bats continuing because he’s swinging and missing more often. Here are his contact rate on pitches out of the strike zone, by month:

April: 56%
May: 53%
June: 39%

In the first two months of the season, pitchers were still pitching around Hamilton, but he was making contact on pitches out of the zone. As pitchers have just kept expanding their locations to get further and further from the plate, Hamilton simply hasn’t started taking more pitches in response. He swung at 42% of pitches out of the zone in April, 44% in May, and 42% in June. The quality of pitches he’s seeing is declining, but not the rate at which Hamilton is swinging at them. And now, it’s costing him outs.

Since a picture is worth a thousand words, and a moving picture is worth exponentially more, here are a couple of GIFs from Hamilton’s at-bats against Colorado over the weekend.

Versus Christian Friedrich, in the bottom of the third inning on Sunday:

Wilin Rosario is set up so far off the plate that there’s almost no chance that the pitch is going to be in the strike zone, and then the pitch is so far to his left that he still has to slide his feet over to try and keep it in front of him. This pitch would have probably hit a right-handed batter. Hamilton swung and missed for strike three.

Okay, but that’s a breaking ball from a lefty, and a lot of LHBs have problems with that pitch. Here’s Hamilton in the 8th inning against Guillermo Moscoso, a bad right-handed pitcher.

Rosario wanted it down and away, but Moscosco missed his spot and ended up throwing it up and away. Didn’t matter. Hamilton was swinging no matter where the pitch was, and Moscoso missed in a spot where he still couldn’t reach it.

Hamilton doesn’t have to become Joey Votto at the plate. He can be an aggressive hitter and still succeed through sheer athletic abilities. But, perhaps someone should show him a plot of the pitches that Joey Votto has swung at this month. Votto is having an insane June, hitting .418/.520/.747 over the last 25 days. He’s not exactly living in a line-up of feared hitters, either, so pitchers have every incentive to pitch around the Reds first baseman. And yet, his swing locations are remarkably different than Hamilton’s:

Votto just doesn’t really swing at pitches on the outside corner. It’s not because he can’t hit them — he’s probably the best opposite field hitter in baseball right now — but because he can better hit a pitch middle-in, and the only way to get a pitcher to come inside is to get into a count where they can’t afford to nibble. Because pitchers know that they can’t just go away on every pitch and get him to chase, Votto gets pitches middle-in that Hamilton does not. It’s not just about drawing walks – it’s about giving yourself the best chance to get a pitch you can crush.

Hamilton can point to the first two months of the season as evidence that his approach can work, but as we talked about a month ago, there just aren’t any historical examples of that approach working over a long period of time. The batter/pitcher match-up is a never-ending game of adjustments, and pitchers have adjusted to Josh Hamilton’s approach. His failure to counter that adjustment is at the heart of his struggles this month, and while he might be good enough to produce with a poor approach at the plate, even he’s not good enough to produce at a high level without some willingness to take pitches.

The Rangers shouldn’t care about getting Josh Hamilton to walk more. Josh Hamilton is a great player even without a lot of walks. Josh Hamilton is not a great player without at least average strikeout rates rates, though, and the pitches that Hamilton are swinging at now result in a lot of strikeouts, even for a guy with ridiculously great plate coverage.

The Rangers know about this. Hamilton knows about this. The question is whether he can adapt enough to force pitchers to do something different. Right now, there is no thinking involved in facing Josh Hamilton — just throw the ball as far outside as humanly possible and hope Hamilton doesn’t hit it over the wall. He needs to make pitcher’s realize that plan won’t work every time. The scale has just tipped too far, and there’s no longer any reason for pitchers to do anything but pound Hamilton away. Until he stops swinging at that pitch, he’ll never see another pitch on the inner half again.

It’s hard to imagine he won’t be able to make the adjustment. He’s too good to keep getting himself out this often, and he’s got $100 million reasons to not put his weaknesses on full display all summer long. That said, the clock is ticking. The book on Hamilton is out, and it is now on him to make an adjustment.




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


45 Responses to “Josh Hamilton Needs to Start Making Adjustments”

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  1. jcxy says:

    well said.

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  2. Atari says:

    Maybe he needs new batting gloves too. A lot of bats going into the crowd lately. It makes me think he might have a hand injury and he is not able to grip the bat right, also affecting performance. Who knows???

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  3. jl says:

    Great article. This is why I love fangraphs, I’m too casual a fan to figure this stuff out myself but I am still really interested in it. Fangraphs really puts out nice succint articles that quantitatively and qualitatively explain the mechanics of baseball and are great reads, although if you’re here I’m sure you already knew that.

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  4. Wobatus says:

    Nice companion piece along with the first article, when he was still lighting it up.

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  5. whatever says:

    Dave Cameron; you nailed it on this one. Props on this one.

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  6. D4P says:

    Hard to believe a guy like Hamilton has the highest O-swing% in the MLB.

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    • E.B. says:

      Looks like his O-Swing% has steadily climbed the past few years:

      2008: 34.7%
      2009: 36.0%
      2010: 37.3%
      2011: 41.0%
      2012: 46.2%

      He might regress somewhat, but it shouldn’t be a surprise if he ends the season at 43%+

      This could benefit the Rangers, I guess, if it were to scare away potential suitors that may otherwise have offered him an 8+ year deal.

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  7. Tom says:

    This looks a little like Ryan Howard Syndrome.

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  8. Great article Dave, but could we please not continue with $ X million reasons to change? It was awful when Terrell Owens’ PR person first said it and it’s even worse now. I am curious though, did Vladimir Guerrero have this same approach with similar results, he seemed to swing at everything as well, but had otherworldly contact abilities.

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    • fergie348 says:

      Ahem, #PabloSandoval suffers from the same abilities. It’s a blessing and a curse. If you want to add value as a hitter, swing at strikes or at least pitches you can drive. Looks like Hamilton is having a little trouble with that right now..

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  9. Beantown says:

    “He’s not exactly living in a lineup of feared hitters, so pitchers have every incentive to pitch around Votto”

    But Dave, protection theory is a myth.

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    • baty says:

      I don’t think it’s a myth. It’s certainly misused and not something significant for all plate appearances. Some managers still love the “optimal” match up, and for as long as they structure rosters in preparation and make game time decisions to achieve this, I’d be shocked to find that they don’t take the indirect route of “pitching around a hitter” in certain situations to get to the more favored match up.

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    • NS says:

      On the input side, it’s actually quite real. Pitchers pitch to the same batters differently when they are protected. What’s missing is evidence these differences change outcomes significantly.

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  10. monkey business says:

    I can never find old stories on FG and I’d like to read the month ago piece, how do I do that?

    Vote -1 Vote +1

    • Justin says:

      It’s linked in the first sentence.

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    • Ben Hall says:

      In general, you can type in keywords in the search box on the home page. Not the Player Search at the top left, but below the FanGraphs Audio box, there’s a search box. I typed in “Josh Hamilton approach” and it was right there (along with this piece). If you just typed in “Josh Hamilton” you might need to go through a few more pieces to find it, but it’d be there.

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  11. batpig says:

    article on ESPN right now: http://espn.go.com/dallas/mlb/story/_/id/8095499/texas-rangers-josh-hamilton-trying-quit-dipping-end-slump

    “Texas Rangers slugger Josh Hamilton is trying to stop two habits right now: swinging at breaking pitches way out of the strike zone and chewing tobacco…. Hamilton met with manager Ron Washington over the weekend. The skipper is preaching that Hamilton find patience at the plate. He’s been swinging at pitches well out of the strike zone and had seven strikeouts in two games against Colorado Rockies on Friday and Saturday.”

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  12. WWMcClyde says:

    Where did you get the plate discipline splits by month?

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  13. Ajay says:

    Great job, Dave. Really enjoyed this.

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  14. Jeff Mathis does Steroids says:

    I think I speak for all Rangers fans when I say thank you for this Dave!

    And Hamilton is a joke at the plate right now. He doesn’t even look like he is trying. And he smiles when he strikes out on three pitches, none of which were even close to the zone. Thats whats most frustrating.

    Well, that and the bat throwing. Someone is going to get hurt. He threw THREE last night. If I was the home plate umpire, and he threw three bats in a game, I would eject him on the spot. Adrian Beltre almost go decapitated in the on deck circle about a week ago and he has been taking his practice swings in the dugout ever since.

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  15. Fangraphs Rookie says:

    Wouldn’t it be better to show a chart with the location of all pitches thrown to Hamilton, not just the ones he swung at? I doubt it’s the case, but pitchers could still be throwing him middle in and if he just didn’t swing at them for some reason, it wouldn’t show up in the first chart, right?

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  16. Phantom Stranger says:

    I had been waiting for this article, Hamilton has been in a brutal slump since his monster week involving the 4-homer game. Teams started pitching him drastically different at that point and it seems to have gotten in his head a little, though his physical tools look temporarily diminished at the moment. He told someone he started the season at 244 and has since dropped to 218 after his recent flu. That can’t help his bat speed any.

    Even the Rangers’ own announcers last night said Josh is missing fastballs now he was crushing in the first two months. Any lefty with a decent slider is just fooling him, while RHPs are throwing him changeup after changeup.

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  17. radicalhenri says:

    that votto graph is remarkable. what happened on that pitch at his head though? haha.

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    • phoenix2042 says:

      I bet it was a case where he dodged back out of the way violently and the nob of his bat handle hit the ball, even though he didn’t mean it to and was just jumping back. That’s a foul ball and counts as a swing. I’ve seen it happen a few times on really up and in pitches that the batter just panics and dodges however they can.

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  18. Andre says:

    One has to ask: PEDS?

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    • Jason B says:

      No really…one doesn’t. PEDs (or lack thereof) don’t make you flail wildly at pitches out of the strike zone. Moving on…

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  19. Hurtlockertwo says:

    Juiced or not, when Bonds started crushing everything, he didn’t get any strikes thrown to him either. He seemed to complain, but drew 200+ walks one year. Maybe Hamilton just needs the coaching staff to tell him to take the walks?

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    • Cidron says:

      as with any well paid, superstar, the question is, Will he listen to the coaching staff? Serious, the “amateur” analysts cought this flaw in his approach and got an article out today. How long did you think it took the Rangers coaches to catch it and get it out to Hamilton? Has he listened? Has his approach changed? Have the results changed? nope. Have the pitchers changed since they adopted this style of approach to him? Nope, why should they?

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  20. Swfcdan says:

    Sounding like a sell-high candidate to me, better add him to my trading block.

    Great article.

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