Josh Hamilton Whiffing: an Investigation of Concerns

Yesterday, in a surprising yet also entirely unsurprising maneuver, the Angels came out of left field (baseball term) to sign free-agent Josh Hamilton to a five-year contract, worth $125 million. Other high-profile free agents have just recently signed — Ryan Dempster! Anibal Sanchez! — but Hamilton was the big fish, and he’s the guy most people are thinking about. He’s been one of the league’s biggest bats, and he signed with the Angels instead of re-signing with the rival Rangers, as was expected. No move sends actual shock waves, but if certain moves were to send shock waves, this would have been among them.

There are almost countless reasons to be worried about Hamilton’s short- and long-term future. There’s a reason why everybody else was unwilling to guarantee five years, and there’s a reason this decision was apparently made over Jerry Dipoto‘s head. A lot of people are worried that Hamilton could have an addiction relapse. A lot of people are worried that Hamilton’s body could break down, as he’s shown signs of physical fragility. At least one person is probably worried that Hamilton could morph into a butterfly and then what would the Angels do with a $25-million butterfly? What worries me, though, and what we’ve talked about here already, is Hamilton’s contact rate. For Josh Hamilton, 2012 was the most recent season, and it was a puzzling season.

What people remember most are feats like this:

Hamilton homered 43 times, and bad players don’t homer 43 times. Hamilton won the American League MVP in 2010, when he homered 32 times. Last year, by results, Josh Hamilton was outstanding, but at the same time, he made a habit of doing this:

I don’t mean he made a habit of striking out against Felix Hernandez, although he did do that five times in seven plate appearances. I mean he made a habit of just generally swinging and missing and striking out. Hamilton struck out more often than ever before, by a significant margin, and he swung and missed with greater frequency than ever before, by a significant margin. Through 2011, Hamilton’s lowest contact rate was just over 72%, and in 2011, it was just under 75%. In 2012, it was just under 65%. In one way, Hamilton got worse; in another way, Hamilton was fantastic.

This is the sort of thing that’s hard to ignore. Seems like this should factor into any Josh Hamilton projection, and projecting Josh Hamilton is the whole issue. So as I see it, there are two questions. There are several questions, but there are two most pressing questions:

  • Would Josh Hamilton’s 2012 performance be sustainable?
  • Should we expect Hamilton’s contact rate to bounce back going forward?

Let’s tackle the first one first. FanGraphs plate-discipline data stretches back to 2002, so I split all seasons, set a minimum of 400 plate appearances, and sorted by contact rate in ascending order. Along with contact rate, I looked at single-season wRC+, which I consider the best measure of productivity. Just how much of an anomaly was Hamilton’s 2012, through this lens?

Hamilton is the point in black. This doesn’t look so bad. He’s at ~65%, and 140. Beside him is 2003 Jim Thome, at ~65% and 145. Right below him is 2007 Ryan Howard, at ~65% and 135. In 2011, Giancarlo Stanton had a 67% contact rate, and his wRC+ was 140. Seasons such as Hamilton’s have happened before, recently, according to this evaluation, so maybe Hamilton could continue to make it work.

But I wasn’t satisfied with contact rate, because that measures contact over swings. Hamilton didn’t only swing and miss often; he swung unusually often, so I turned later to swinging-strike rate. This captures whiffs over all pitches. Hamilton is aggressive and doesn’t often walk. Another graph:

This is more troubling. Among all regulars and semi-regulars, Hamilton posted the second-highest swinging-strike rate during the FanGraphs Era. Only 2009 Miguel Olivo beat him, by a hair. The Hamilton point stands out. And keep in mind these charts select for players thought to be producing enough to keep playing, despite all the whiffs. They had to reach 400 plate appearances somehow. In 2009, Mark Reynolds posted a 127 wRC+ and a ~17% swinging-strike rate. That’s the closest successful comp to Hamilton’s 2012. Of the nine highest single-season swinging-strike rates, only one — Hamilton’s — came with a wRC+ over 101. Hamilton’s season has not been matched in the recent past.

That doesn’t mean Hamilton couldn’t keep it up. Obviously, he is a tremendous natural talent, and sometimes players are exceptions. Hamilton did do what he did, after all, over a full season. But he got worse over the full season, after a torrid first two months. His swinging strikes increased, and after May he appeared a lot more mortal. I wouldn’t say pitchers figured him out, because Hamilton still hit reasonably well, but pitchers more frequently exploited his weaknesses.

So we move now to the second question. What do we make of Josh Hamilton’s contact skills going forward? I already mentioned the extent to which Hamilton’s 2012 contact rate dipped. I asked Jeff Zimmerman to track down other players, from 2002 on, who lost at least six percentage points of contact rate between consecutive seasons, seasons in which they batted at least 400 times. Zimmerman identified nine such players, Hamilton excluded:

In Year 1, let’s set the group contact rate at 1. In Year 2, the average group contact rate was 0.92 — that is, on average, the players lost 8% of their contact rate. In Year 3, the average group contact rate was 0.96. There was a bounce back, half of the way. Granted, we’re dealing with a sample size of nine. Nine players, none of whom are Josh Hamilton. But I wondered about Year 0 — that is, the year before Year 1, obviously. In Year 0, the average group contact rate was 0.96. So, 4% lower than in Year 1. What we see is no change between Year 0 and Year 3. The players returned to what we might consider their original norms. The thing about Josh Hamilton is that, before 2012, he’d never approached such a low contact rate. He’d always hung out in the low- to mid-70s.

The biggest decrease, by percentage, among all the players belonged to Morgan Ensberg, who lost 11% of his contact. He didn’t recover in Year 3. Hamilton lost 13% of his contact. No regular player, since 2002, has seen his contact rate drop season-to-season as significantly as Josh Hamilton just did. You knew that Hamilton’s career course was unusual. Covering recent history, you could call it unparalleled.

So, there are indications that Hamilton’s contact rate could bounce back, some. Over the last 11 years, only Hamilton has been successful at the plate with a swinging-strike rate so high. What that doesn’t mean is that Hamilton can’t go another five years doing what he did in 2012. He’s a special talent, and he could be an exception to what you’d assume would be rules. But it’s a gamble to bet that Hamilton is an exception, on top of all the other gambles involved here. The gamble regarding the state of his body. The gamble regarding the state of his mind. The gamble regarding his transition away from the Rangers’ ballpark to a pitcher-friendly Angel Stadium. At the simplest level, Josh Hamilton has been really good, so the Angels should expect him to stay really good for a while. But there’s not a damn thing about evaluating Josh Hamilton that ought to be simple. Players don’t really get much more complicated.




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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.


29 Responses to “Josh Hamilton Whiffing: an Investigation of Concerns”

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  1. stanley says:

    Best put by Jamey Newberg (http://www.newbergreport.com/article.asp?articleid=2839)

    He’s streaky. He’s undisciplined. He’s brittle, if not unreliable.
    He can be, as he’s reminded us, “very deceptive, very sneaky in a lot of ways” when he wants. His unpredictability is completely predictable. It’s him, Josh, it’s gonna be something weird.
    He’s deeply flawed to the point at which he’s an unusually risky long-term proposition.
    And I wanted him back here.
    But not at any cost.

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  2. Dan Rozenson says:

    I think it was Ben Lindberg over at BP who showed that Hamilton is likely to struggle more offensively as he ages than an average slugger, given his propensity for swings and misses. People with good strike zone recognition don’t have to “cheat” as much with their swings to compensate for lost bat speed.

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  3. bballstatswhiz says:

    glad the yankees did not get him

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    • jwise224 says:

      I was thinking the same thing from the Mariners’ perspective. The Yanks have a larger margin for error than the M’s do.

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  4. Phantom Stranger says:

    This is where sabrmetrics utterly fails in its analysis, ignoring contextual factors. Anyone that has watched Josh’s entire career at the plate knows that the contact rate for 2012 was almost solely due to a new approach for him. His ability to make contact hasn’t changed at all, he is still a supreme talent at the plate with some of the best batspeed in the game. Josh was pushing for a big payday and the best way to do that is hit homers. He knew it, his agent knew it, everyone in MLB knew it. This is not a case of Adam Dunn, where he simply was out of shape the entire season and couldn’t make contact if he wanted.

    Josh did struggle with adjustments after pitchers got wise to the fact he was clobbering balls early in the count. He also looked worn out by the end of the season physically, which led to the infamous problems in the outfield and possibly the final 50 at-bats.

    I believe without the pressure of performing for a contract and the issues he left behind in Texas (which did not support him publicly at all in 2012 and did everything possible to drive down his free agent value), the Angels will be getting the 2008-2011 version of Josh. Nolan Ryan has no one to blame but himself for Josh leaving the Rangers.

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    • Average_Casey says:

      Seriously, if scouts didn’t agree with Sabermetrics, Hamilton would have been signed a long time ago with a larger contract. A huge amount of front offices disagree with your thought that Hamilton’s last year was an anomaly.

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    • channelclemente says:

      I would be most concerned about that flyball/pop up he muffed at seasons end against the A’s He simply didn’t see. It’s an N of 1, but with his light dark splits over the years, I wonder if he has a vision issue. It would be interesting to see if the Angels fortified their purchase with insurance against his physical breakdown and what the actuarial cost of that policy might have been.

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    • bjoak says:

      The point of the article was that other players with this approach do not succeed, ergo, whether intentional or not, it likely wouldn’t work again. So it wasn’t probably a good way to bank on a payday, and anyway, if it is the best thing to do, as you say, one would just think he’ll do it again–and fail.

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  5. Brendan says:

    Tony Batista disagrees that bad players don’t hit 40 home runs

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    • Llewdor says:

      I love Tony Batista. He is the perfect example of how 30 HR and 100 RBI does not guarantee quality, as he managed to reach both marks while being a below-replacement-level hitter.

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  6. Saxon says:

    “there’s a reason this decision was apparently made over Jerry Dipoto‘s head.”

    I am curious about this suggestion. Are you saying this because the signing conflicts with statements he made the day before coupled with Arte and John Carpino visiting Hamilton at his home?

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  7. Kazinski says:

    It wasn’t just a intentional contract strategy that pushed up Hamilton’s swinging strike rate, unless Josh is an incredibly long range thinker. His swinging strike percentage is up mostly due to his OSwing% rising. Here is Hamilton’s OSwing% , and Swinging strike rate for his entire career:

    Season O-Swing% SwStr%
    2007 26.90% 11.50%
    2008 34.70% 14.00%
    2009 36.00% 15.50%
    2010 37.30% 13.30%
    2011 41.00% 13.60%
    2012 45.40% 20.00%

    You don’t need excel to tell you that there is a very robust correlation between his OSwing % and his swinging strike rate (it’s .79).

    The question is why is his OSwing% going up, and is it reversible? Is it because he is being more aggressive, or because his pitch recognition is getting worse, or have pitchers adjusted to him and started throwing him more of the kinds of pitches he can’t lay off of?

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  8. Average_Casey says:

    Looking at the stats page for Hamilton, his flyball rate climbed about 4% and his flyball to homerun rate jumped from 19 to 25% IIRC. Not watching him a lot makes me think that Hamilton started (swinging out his ass) as we called it when I played baseball in community college. When players take huge cuts every time, the strike out rate jumps and so does their power. It sounds like that may be what is going on here. I’m thinking that Hamilton got a little infatuated with crushing homeruns and decided to swing harder than he used to. It was probably on purpose since he was in a contract year and wanted more homeruns to drive up his price at the expense of strikeouts. A few years ago, this approach would have worked better since front offices weren’t as smart as they are now.

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  9. Ghoul says:

    What if there’s a factor that nobody has considered: that Hamilton is more valuable to the Angels than any other team?

    Let’s say that Hamilton would be a 4 win player for 2013, and is totally expected to resign with the Rangers. That makes his market value at 5 million per win, a total of 20 million dollars in value. The next best player is Nick Swisher, who we’ll project for… say 2.5 (I think he’s probably worth 3, but this’ll make my point easier). The Athletics 2012 was a fluke and they are a .500 team next year. The only two teams with a chance of winning the AL West next year are the Angels and Rangers.

    Okay, that’s a lot of assumptions, not all of which will hold but bear with me. Pretty much, that means that the ONLY thing the Angels care about is beating the Rangers. And adding 4 wins is a really good way to do that. However, by poaching Hamilton, they also TAKE away 4 wins from the Rangers. Even if the Rangers sign Nick Swisher, they still lose 1.5 wins in the process. That makes the Hamilton signing a 5.5 win swing, increasing his value to 27.5 million, which makes his deal a slight profit for the Angels.

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    • Marcus Andrews says:

      It’s not a zero sum game though. You’re not taking away 4 wins from the Rangers and that’s it because they can fill Hamilton’s spot on their roster and in their lineup and you’re not just adding 4 wins because you’re replacing a different starter with Hamilton.

      If you project Craig Gentry and Leonys Martin platoon (not saying that’s what is going to happen, just makes the most sense with the current roster) to get about 3 WAR, which seems fair and you project Peter Bourjous at 3 WAR, again, seems fair to me then the Angels added 1 win to their roster and took 1 win away from the Rangers and are paying $25 million to do it.

      Now, of course, the off season is not over. The Angels could turn Bourjous and change into a 2.5 win starter but as of right now, this seems like a 2-3 win swing at best for the Angels.

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      • Ghoul says:

        I never said it was a perfect comparison, only that it is an additional factor.

        I even assumed that the Rangers use some of the money they would have spent on Hamilton on Swisher.

        It’s one of many factors that you could use to evaluate the deal. It’s far from the only or even the most relevant.

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    • bjoak says:

      You’re also not accounting for the loss of Tori Hunter who was more valuable than Hamilton last year, nor of all the other ways the teams changed. Baseball is a lot more complex than tacking on some wins.

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    • John Smith says:

      Even if a 94-win team is a fluke, that makes it an 88-90 win team–not a 500 or sub 500 team.

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      • bjoak says:

        Right. Also a good point. The A’s will start out with a much better team than last year: no obvious holes (assuming they land a shortstop), Anderson back, Chris Young on board. And I don’t think you can count on a ton of regression from individual players.

        The thing is that they don’t have sexy names like Josh Hamilton so people tend to discount them, but 37 home runs from their platoon at first base is what it is. Go pick on a team without a run differential like the Baltimorioles.

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  10. Stormin'Norman says:

    When I saw the article title, I had a feeling it would be about strikeouts, but with the writer I honestly expected something about the Seattle Mariners pretending to be interested in Hamilton and then feigning distress when his agent didn’t even give them a call.

    I don’t think the Mariners FO is as bad as venomous and avaricious as the Marlins, but at least the Marlins can evaluate talent. Zduriencik is one part Jeffrey Loria’s smoke and mirrors and one part Dayton Moore’s incompetence.

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  11. Travis says:

    Good article.

    I know there isn’t a stat for quitting chewing tobacco (if there was I suppose it would be called O-Dip) but does anyone think that could have played a role in his decline in performance after his torrid start?

    Personally, I think it’s a possibility that his quitting chewing tobacco played a part but probably just a little. He’s getting older and, even though I’m an Angel fan, I just am not enthusiastic about the signing (especially the final 2-3 years of the contract).

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  12. Tim says:

    “At least one person is probably worried that Hamilton could morph into a butterfly and then what would the Angels do with a $25-million butterfly?”

    I wasn’t until I read this article.

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  13. CJ in Austin, TX says:

    Ironically, Morgan Ensberg had the best season of his career in 2005 when his contract rate declined so much. Ensberg was the MVP of an Astros team that went to the World Series, and finished in the top 3 or 4 in the NL MVP balloting that year. Ensberg went into the 2005 season, knowing that the Astros were depending on him to replace some big offensive losses in the lineup (an injured Bagwell and Beltran). Anecdotally, early in the season, Ensberg opened up his batting stance and began swinging harder than in the past, with a resulting big increase in his HR totals. That probably explains the lower contact rate.

    It’s not clear what happened to Ensberg in subsequent seasons. But he started the 2006 season much like 2005, with a string of HRs. However, he suffered a wrist injury on a fielding play a couple of months into the season, and his offense never really returned. I’m not sure that Ensberg’s path really tells us a lot about what will happen in Hamilton’s case.

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  14. Hamilton is an incredible talent. I think he will bring good value back on this contract. Not to mention he will have absolutely incredible protection in this new lineup, if you believe in protection. It’s a bit of an overpay, maybe, but the Halos are in good position to compete the next few years and he is a great big bat. He will make any necessary adjustments and should be a force offensively for a few more years. Defensively, we will see. I really think the only question is whether or not he stays healthy, but you can ask that question of all players.

    As for the Angels, this might be 25 million to other teams, but you could probably cut the economic impact in half with their revenues in terms of the actual impact to the ownership group.

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  15. robert foster says:

    anyone who would have watched the rangers last 50 games would not have signed josh to sell popcorn much less play bseball.. glad yall got him. thanks

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  16. VikingArthur says:

    I have concerns about any baseball player who quits tobacco, realizes its hurting his performance and doesn’t go to the store and get a can of Skoal. No one likes quitters. Get back on the dip Josh!!

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  17. Dave says:

    The sampling size of basically one half of a season is too small to be making such predictions of decline. It is far more likely that Josh’s second half decline was due to transitory problems like is up coming contract and his quitting of tobacco. Both of these became acerbated as the pressure on him by his team and fans begen to build. He did have vision issues due to caffeine intake and he likely did become homer happy as the season wore on, but a change of teams and the security of a new contract should remove the negative pressures he was under. All in all, he is far more likely to become the hitter he has been for the last four years then Torii Hunter is to hit .350 down the stretch again.

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  18. sboston says:

    Hamilton can do whatever he wants with a bat. I know he will be hitting behind 2 top 5 picks in fantasy. I know the Angels could easily have 3 players exceeding a .900 OPS. I know Hamilton hit just as good on the road as he did at home last year. He is simply an elite player, on an elite offensive team. His 2nd half struggles were the best thing that could’ve happened, because if he had kept up his first half pace, he would’ve been the number 1 or 2 overall pick. He will be available at a relative discount, which doesn’t normally happen to guys that hit 43 HRS/128 RBIS.

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