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Should Josh Hamilton Get the Barry Bonds Treatment?

Josh Hamilton had an awesome 2010 at the plate, hitting .359/.411/.633 for a .447 wOBA, and he put on quite a show in the ALCS, too. This has prompted the suggestion that the Giants should give Hamilton the ‘Barry Bonds Treatment’ in the World Series, simply walking Hamilton every time he’s up. Anyone who has watched Hamilton hammer the ball can relate to this sentiment, at least on a visceral level. The Yankees certainly came close to giving Hamilton the Bonds Treatment in the ALCS, and that obviously didn’t work out too well for them. At the risking of beating another sabermetric shibboleth into the ground, let’s take a look at the numbers.

The place to start is to figure out how good Hamilton probably is. He had a .447 wOBA this season, but that isn’t the whole story. CHONE’s August 23 update estimates Hamilton’s true hitting talent in context at .386 wOBA (my conversion from the projected line). When we’re looking at intentional walks, we need to compare that to the hitters who typically hit after him: Vladimir Guerrero is at .364, Nelson Cruz is at .376, and Ian Kinsler is at .357. No surprise here: Hamilton is clearly the best hitter of the group.

Just because he’s the best hitter that doesn’t necessarily mean he should be walked in every situation. For a good summary of reasons why, read MGL’s discussion here. His basic advice:

My recommendation to any manager would simply be to never worry about walking anyone intentionally, at least in the early and middle innings. Pitch to everyone. One, except perhaps in rare, ideal situations, you are probably reducing your team’s chances of winning. Two, it is not worth the time and effort, and perhaps a little stomach acid and a few extra gray hairs worrying about it.

That’s probably the best rule to go by, and definitely better than much of the decision-making we’ve seen. But let’s get into a bit more detail for Hamilton’s case. The Book goes into great detail regarding the iBB; the idea is that given a particular game/out/base stat, the hitter at the plate’s expected wOBA versus the pitcher needs to be a certain higher proportion than the following hitter(s) in order for an intentional walk to be the right move. For the sake of space, for the most part I won’t do detailed analyses of individual Giants pitcher splits or other Rangers hitters other than Guerrero (whose projected numbers are the most relevant, and aren’t all that much better or worse than Cruz’s or Kinsler’s).

While Hamilton has hit everyone well this year, like many good hitters, he has a pretty big platoon split. Given his projected wOBA of .386, I estimate his platoon skill as .400 wOBA versus RHP and .355 vs. LHP. That’s decent vs. LHP, but hardly intentional walk territory, especially given that Guerrero’s estimated wOBA skill vs. LHP is .382! So neither Jonathan Sanchez nor Madison Bumgarner, both southpaws, should ever walk Hamilton to get to Vlad. When the later innings come around and the starters are out of the game, the Giants should bring in Javier Lopez to face Hamilton in crucial situations.

That takes care of many situations, but what about against right-handed starters Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain? Neither has a terribly big split, but we’d expect them to have less success against lefty hitters than against righties. Here we need to look at the ratio: Hamilton’s expected .400 wOBA is about 1.12 times Vlad’s expected .358 vs. RHP. When does the big chart in the Book say that calls for a walk? In the bottom of the seventh, runners on second and third, one out, and the pitching team down by five; in the top of he eighth runners on second and third, out, and the pitching team down by five; in the bottom of the eighth, runners on second and third, one out, and the game tied or the pitching team is behind; and the top of the ninth, runners on second and third, one out, and the game is tied or the pitching team is behind. That’s it, and since those are all relatively late game situations, the Giants will often be able to bring in a left-handed reliever to face him.

Of course, if you think Hamilton is better than a .400 wOBA hitter versus righties, it changes things. If Hamilton is a .430 wOBA true talent hitter versus RHP, the ratio of that to Vlad’s .358 is about 1.20. But even though the situations where an intentional walk is called for increases, most of them are still in the latter innings with the pitching team behind, one out, and runners on second and third. Again, in many of those situations the Giants probably should be able to bring in Javier Lopez to pitch to Hamilton.

Josh Hamilton is clearly the Rangers’ biggest threat at the plate, and there are some situations when an intentional walk would be the right move. But for most game states, or with a lefty on the mound or available to come in, the Giants shouldn’t give him the Barry Bonds Treatment.