I’m going to be honest with you: I find it surprisingly easy to forget about Josh Hamilton. You think about the Angels team and you think about Mike Trout; you keep thinking about the Angels and you think about Albert Pujols. It doesn’t help that Hamilton was on the disabled list for so long earlier this year. But not actually that long ago, he was one of the most mysterious and volatile free agents in baseball history. This, to say the least, is something of an unexpected slide. It could be Trout is far too distracting, or, similarly, it could be Trout is kind of an attention black hole. Anyone who casts an eye to the Angels is pulled into Trout’s incredible player page. Hamilton, though, hasn’t ceased to be fascinating. This is maybe the quietest it’s ever been for him, but there’s something about Hamilton that keeps getting more extreme.
We’ve written plenty of times before about Hamilton’s plate discipline. Over the years, he’s hit, but he’s shown a lot of vulnerabilities — getting exposed for his over-aggressiveness. If you imagine a Hamilton swing, you might imagine a dinger he clobbers deep to straightaway center; or you might imagine him flailing at something slow in the dirt. He has something of a trademark flail, and in response, pitchers have thrown Hamilton fewer and fewer fastballs. This season, Hamilton’s seen the fewest fastballs yet. This season, Hamilton entered uncharted territory.
Here’s a chart, from Brooks Baseball, showing the pitch mix Hamilton has seen. Instead of specifying each pitch type, certain types are combined into broader categories. It captures the right ideas.
The trends are obvious to spot. Over the years, Hamilton has seen a decreasing rate of hard pitches. He’s seen increasing rates of offspeed pitches and breaking pitches. It used to be that he saw 55% to 60% fastballs and cutters and sinkers and whatnot. This year that’s dipped below 45%. About that: I have a table for you.
We’ve got some pitch-type information stretching all the way back to 2002. I can’t vouch for perfect accuracy in the first few years, but what we have is better than nothing — and it’s not like the data ought to be wildly incorrect. Anyway, I split position-player seasons between 2002 and 2014, setting a season minimum of 100 plate appearances. I then combined fastball rates and cutter rates, and here are the lowest single-season rates of hard pitches seen:
I don’t remember Brandon Larson, but here he is. Larson nearly tops this table, but this year’s version of Josh Hamilton is in the lead by a significant margin. The player-season pool here numbers close to 6,000, and out of those, dating back to 2002, this year’s Josh Hamilton has seen the lowest rate of hard pitches. The season, of course, isn’t over, but Hamilton’s rate in June was lower than it was before he got injured. And his rate so far in July is lower than it was in June. It’s the simplest kind of approach adjustment: It’s been determined that Hamilton struggles to hit non-fastballs, so pitchers are throwing more non-fastballs.
Unsurprisingly, not only is Hamilton seeing baseball’s lowest rate of fastballs, but he’s also seeing baseball’s lowest rate of fastballs in the strike zone. Meanwhile, there’s something interesting going on with his contact rates. This data is also from Brooks Baseball.
Hamilton’s contact rate against fastballs is somewhat unremarkable and fairly stable. But look at those other pitches. Hamilton, this year, against breaking stuff and offspeed stuff, has made contact with fewer than half of his swings. And that’s hardly going to get pitchers to change what they’re doing. Hamilton isn’t hitting those pitches, so why not throw more of them?
Hamilton, in a way, has tried to adjust by swinging less often across the board. What he has now is a career-high walk rate. But he also has a career-high strikeout rate, a career-low contact rate and he’s still prone to chasing. His rate of swings at strikes is lower than ever, while his rate of swings at balls is about the same as ever. Hamilton’s walk rate isn’t so much a function of his discipline as it is a function of pitchers seldom throwing him strikes, because they often don’t need to. He has 53 strikeouts and 17 unintentional walks.
To this point, it all hasn’t been a problem, on account of Hamilton’s wildly high BABIP. But if you adjust that down to his career average, you see what’s happening here. Hamilton’s average craters, and his slugging craters and this is the second year of a five-year contract. Hamilton’s been kept alive by BABIP, but BABIP is one of the worst individual numbers to bet on.
What does Hamilton have to say on the matter? It’s funny that you ask. Here’s a quote from the middle of June:
Hamilton is still being pitched fundamentally different than he did in his 2010 AL MVP Award-winning season with the Rangers, seeing significantly fewer fastballs. But he’s shown less proclivity to chase than he did in a difficult ’13.
“No matter how little they throw me fastballs, I’m still going to sit fastball every pitch,” Hamilton said. “I can’t say I’m going to sit curveball and react to the fastball.”
Most players sit fastball. If you try to hit a fastball to the big part of the field, then if you’re a bit early, you might pull something slower. Josh Hamilton is sitting fastball, but he’s not getting fastballs. If there were one guy in the league who might want to sit on something else, it would be Hamilton. But he’s waiting for hard pitches, and he’s seeing fewer of them than ever.
You have to wonder how far this can go. How low this can sink? Hamilton used to get 55% fastballs. Now he’s not even at 45% fastballs. What about 40%? What about 35%? What about 30%? What about something even lower? What’s the optimal mix for a guy like Josh Hamilton, who struggles so badly to hit slow pitches that are down? Obviously he has to be thrown some fastballs, both to be kept honest and because not every pitcher has good secondary stuff. Still, I don’t know where the floor is for something like this. I’m sure we haven’t seen it, though.
Over the history that we have, Hamilton is seeing fewer fastballs than anyone ever. In turn, he’s whiffing more than ever, and striking out more than ever. Each month, the fastball rate has gone down. Perhaps, at some point, Hamilton will adjust. But if he doesn’t, this could be a hell of a thing to monitor. Josh Hamilton has taken us into the unknown, and now that we’re here, who’s to say we’re done exploring?
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