Josh Hamilton’s Hitting Breakout

It looks increasingly likely that the Rangers will win the American League West division. If that happens, a big reason for their success will be Josh Hamilton and his monstrous season at the plate. How has Hamilton gone from his disappointing 2009 season to this dream season of anyone who ever once discussed what Josh Hamilton might look like if he reached that rarified air of a prospect’s ceiling?

In one word: power. Hamilton’s walk rate is unchanged from last season and his strikeout rate, though improved, is equal to what it was in 2008 and on balance with his overall career rate. However, his isolated slugging which went from .226 in 2008 to .158 last season has not only regressed to but has exceeded his prior numbers. Hamilton’s .279 iso ranks fifth in all of baseball. Helping to reinforce the notion that Hamilton is hitting the ball harder, Josh’s BABIP has ballooned to an eye-opening .399.

Is this increase in power resulting from better hitting, stronger hitting, good luck or some combination? What I call better hitting is more precisely defined by his line drive rate, a measure of how often he squares up on the ball. While line drive rate is prone to fluctuation and issues with scoring bias, since Hamilton has stayed with the same team I feel it a fair comparison. And what that comparison shows is very little difference. Given that, I wouldn’t hold my breath expecting Hamilton to hold on to that AL-leading batting average all season.

As a proxy for stronger hitting, I turned to HitTrackerOnline to get numbers on Hamilton’s home runs. In 2008, Hamilton sprayed home runs to all fields. Last season he hit all ten to either left or right field. None were within 15 degrees of the straight to center field line. Hamilton is back to dispersing his home runs this year, and more concretely his distance numbers are much higher. 2009 Josh Hamilton had an average true distance on his home runs of 412 feet. That’s pretty impressive, but pales against this year’s average of 423 feet. It indeed appears that Hamilton is stronger or in some other way making better contact this season.

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Matthew Carruth is a software engineer who has been fascinated with baseball statistics since age five. When not dissecting baseball, he is watching hockey or playing soccer.