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Josh Hamilton Signs With Angels Out of Nowhere

Let’s begin with the news: Josh Hamilton is a free agent no longer. As of Thursday, he’s agreed to a five-year contract with the Angels reportedly worth $125 million. That breaks down easily to come out to an average annual value of $25 million. As of Wednesday, the Rangers looked like the favorites to get Hamilton locked up, and it was said that Hamilton would give the Rangers a chance to match any offer before he committed himself to another organization. According to Jon Heyman, the Rangers were actually given no such chance, as they were simply told that Hamilton was leaving. Reports suggest the Rangers wouldn’t go higher than four years. The Angels gave five. Five is greater than four.

Now let’s follow with some recent history. The Angels weren’t even mentioned seriously as a Hamilton suitor until Thursday morning. It looked like it would be the Rangers, with the Mariners and the Phillies somewhere on the dark-horse periphery. In fact:

December 12, 2012 is one day before the Angels signed Josh Hamilton to a five-year contract. If this sounds familiar, it’s because things were fairly similar a year ago, before the Angels signed Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson almost simultaneously. Selected old tweets of some note:

Jerry Dipoto downplayed the team’s interest in the big stars, and then the big stars were signed, with the Angels emerging only very late as a Pujols suitor. Pujols, remember, was going to be a Cardinal or a Marlin, until the Angels handed him a decade.

A lot of this, of course, isn’t Jerry Dipoto. A lot of this is Arte Moreno, who wants to win and who wants to win people over. Moreno, surely, was hurt by the 2012 Angels missing the playoffs, and Moreno, surely, hasn’t enjoyed seeing the Dodgers steal the spotlight. I don’t think Moreno and the Angels signed Hamilton only to compete with the other team in LA, but it was presumably a factor, as Moreno wants his team to be a sensation. He’s very conscious of PR concerns, and Hamilton was identified as a glorious opportunity. The Dodgers spent big, but the Angels spent last, and the Angels gave themselves and their fan base a considerable boost.

There’s going to be some relationship between this deal and the Angels’ lucrative TV contract. Before, the Angels looked like something of a cautionary tale — they signed Pujols and Wilson with their new money, but then this offseason they lost Zack Greinke and appeared to be near to their limits. Now with Hamilton, it’s clear they were not near to their limits at all, and one wonders where the limits might be. The Angels have demonstrated their massive spending potential, and while they won’t be the Dodgers in that regard, they can be close enough.

Now, as for the actual Hamilton part. Before we get to discussing the player, we can touch on the implications here for the rest of the market. The Rangers keep seeing potential acquisitions disappear. With Hamilton gone, too, they might turn their attention to Nick Swisher or Michael Bourn, guys who have had limited markets. That would put more pressure on the Indians and Mariners, who have had interest in those players, as Hamilton just landed with a mystery team. The Rangers have a clear need to upgrade but fewer and fewer obvious solutions. They could keep trying for R.A. Dickey, but they might now have competition — in the form of the Angels, again.

Hamilton joins an Anaheim outfield that previously included Mike Trout, Peter Bourjos, Mark Trumbo, and Vernon Wells. The Angels are now freer to deal Bourjos or Trumbo for help at another position, and they could target a starting pitcher. Bourjos has been in the center of rumors for quite some time, and his value is not as low as his most recent offensive statistics. Trumbo might be a tougher sell given his second-half collapse, but his power generates attention, and attention is value, in a way.

In terms of actual upgrades, it’s hard to declare that Hamilton represents one over 2012 — Torii Hunter was worth more than five wins, and he left a vacancy. But the priority for the Angels wasn’t really upgrading over 2012; it was upgrading over what they had upon 2012’s conclusion, and Hunter was already out of the picture. Hamilton, then, is obviously a significant add. He doesn’t guarantee a playoff berth, just as Hunter’s performance didn’t earn a playoff berth last season, but the Angels’ odds are better now than they were a few hours ago.

I feel like I don’t even need to really discuss Hamilton as a player, given how often he’s already been discussed over the previous months. You have a good feel for what he is, and what his risks might be. He’s 31 years old, which means he’s probably not getting better. He’s proven to be somewhat injury-prone, and while that didn’t stop him from getting into 148 games most recently, he’s also probably not getting more durable. Plenty of people are concerned about Hamilton’s history of substance abuse, since he has the potential to relapse, and since people don’t quite understand what, if any, long-term effects said substance abuse might’ve had.

But to me, the biggest risk here is something else. There’s no question that Hamilton was the most mysterious free agent baseball’s had in a long time. For two months last year, he was almost impossible to retire, but then things changed somewhat significantly. Hamilton’s final numbers were outstanding, even adjusted for park, but he struck out in a quarter of his plate appearances. From June on, he struck out even more often than that. After posting contact rates around 74% earlier in his career, last year he dropped to 65%. Last year Josh Hamilton made less-frequent contact than Miguel Olivo. Last year Josh Hamilton made less-frequent contact than Cliff Lee. Some splits:

Time Zone% Swing% Contact% Z-Swing% O-Swing%
Before June 36% 57% 68% 83% 43%
From June On 38% 57% 63% 82% 42%

Even Adam Dunn has never posted a contact rate as low as Josh Hamilton just did, and Adam Dunn has always been able to walk. Dunn, for his career, has walked (unintentionally) in 15% of his plate appearances. Last year, Hamilton drew unintentional walks in under eight percent of his plate appearances. He finished with 47 unintentional walks and 162 strikeouts, and the year before his walk numbers were even worse. Hamilton, too often, got himself out. When he wasn’t mashing dingers. Which he frequently was.

We haven’t really seen a season like Hamilton’s 2012, with so much success but so many red flags. Which makes Hamilton more difficult to project going forward. If you want to do it the simple way, the last three years Hamilton has been worth 5.8 WAR per 600 plate appearances. Now drop that a little, because his MVP campaign came in 2010, and drop that a little more, because he’s aging. Then there’s the more complicated way. Does Hamilton’s contact rebound? Which didn’t belong — Hamilton’s contact rate, or Hamilton’s 140 wRC+? Which will regress? Which will regress more, if the answer to the first question is “both”?

It’s not like Hamilton’s 2012 finish clears things up. in September/October, he posted a 126 wRC+ while whiffing with four of every nine swings. Maybe this is just what Hamilton will be, and he’ll prove to be historically unique in that regard. Maybe this approach is sustainable, for him. It’s a hell of a chance to take, but then, Hamilton is a hell of a natural talent, with a hell of a track record. It’s entirely possible we’ve all just been overthinking this to death. Hamilton’s long been good. The Angels are betting that he’ll continue to be good. Baseball is easy.

In 2012, Mike Trout led baseball in WAR. In 2010, Josh Hamilton led baseball in WAR. That same year, Albert Pujols led the National League in WAR. The Angels haven’t necessarily built a champion; the Angels haven’t even necessarily built a playoff team. But damned if the Angels aren’t ballsy and loud. It’s going to be nothing short of fascinating to see how this works out.