The (Recently) Unprecedented Treatment of Josh Hamilton

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.

hamiltonpitchtypes

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:

Season Name Hard%
2014 Josh Hamilton 42.2%
2003 Brandon Larson 46.0%
2009 Ryan Howard 47.3%
2003 Todd Greene 47.8%
2006 Garret Anderson 48.7%
2006 Matt Kemp 48.7%
2004 Moises Alou 48.9%
2007 Moises Alou 48.9%
2005 Moises Alou 49.1%
2012 Wilin Rosario 49.2%

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.

hamiltoncontactrates

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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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.


44 Responses to “The (Recently) Unprecedented Treatment of Josh Hamilton”

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  1. mikescioscia says:

    You would think that Don Baylor would talk some sense into that boy, unless he is senseless???

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  2. Mr. Jones says:

    Love the background image of that graph where Hamilton has basically completed a swing at a ball that’s about to hit the plate. Perfect.

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  3. Satoshi Nakamoto says:

    Hamilton got paid. Why should he care?
    And it’s not like the Angels are losing horribly.
    His teammates can keep them afloat.

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    • a eskpert says:

      Because, to use the terminology frequently assigned to him: he’s toolsy as fuck. I personally think he’s Puig if Puig made no attempt to adjust his approach to major league pitching.

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    • Jason B says:

      You’re right, once you get paid, you should cease to care, or try. Well said.

      (?)

      (!!)

      And as long as your teammates pick up the slack, you should likewise cease to care, or try.

      (?)

      (!!)

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    • TKDC says:

      Why are you here?

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    • Erik says:

      It’s amazing to think of how much money the Angels have spent on absolutely nothing.

      The team is going to win 95 games this year and it will all be thanks to Trout, Richards, Aybar, Kendrick, Calhoun, Cron, Cowgil and Morin.

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      • Ruki Motomiya says:

        To be fair, Pujols looks like he’ll end with around 3 WAR unless he gets injured, not nearly enough for his contract but it isn’t like he is doing absolutely nothing.

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        • Erik says:

          Pujol’s WAR ridiculously overstates his actual value.

          He finally got his first hit with the bases loaded this year earlier last week.

          His stats with runners in scoring position or even on base are some of the worst on the team.

          The majority of his home runs are solo and have come at absolutely meaningless points of the game.

          When he’s gotten on base he has continued to selfishly make outs, usually trying to stretch would be doubles into actual doubles, and the like.

          Yes it can even out, and no Pujols has not been completely worthless, but his single biggest contribution has been his glove at first base. I don’t see this team having a significantly different record had Albert simply staid home this year.

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      • AA says:

        Pujols certainly has seen his power recover.

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  4. AS says:

    In the first chart, I assume offspeed primarily means changeups, but what else are you including in that? Splitters?

    Also, it will definitely be interesting to see what the floor ends up being on how many fastballs he gets. To a certain degree, it should eventually be limited somewhat simply by seeing relievers who tend to rely primarily on fastballs. Even if starters drop down to throwing him even as little as 25-30% hard stuff, you’d expect a much higher percentage from relievers. If not, that would really say something about his ability to hit non-fastballs when even fastball specialists aren’t throwing him heat.

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  5. a eskpert says:

    Also unprecedented (for Hamilton), he’s not a plus baserunner as yet this season.

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  6. Pedro C. says:

    Obviously bats are afraid of curve ball, where’s a live chicken?

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  7. MLB Rainmaker says:

    Hmm, I think you are losing touch with the human aspect of this sport. These guys are not machines, coming back from injury you don’t just pick up where you left off. You’re likely not 100% and still somewhat hesitant about your injury, and hesitant to push to your limits.

    Hamilton looked great in spring training and was white hot before getting hurt, and he hasn’t looked good any stretch since coming back from injury. Sure, some of this is approach and how guys pitch to him, but there is also some amount of hangover from his injury that needs to be accepted.

    I don’t think he every gets back to 43 HRs, partly due to how he’s pitched but also park factor and health, but do think he’s better than what he’s showing now. He’s a 25 HR guy that’s going to hit for average and collect RBIs based on his ability to make hard contact, when he does make contact.

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    • TrappedInAfangraph says:

      The thing about Hamilton is he’s always going to be injured to one degree or another, and he just can’t deal with it. He doesn’t make adjustments, and every batter — no matter how talented they are — can’t just do the same thing over and over again and expect to succeed. But that’s what he does. Because he’s so talented he’s going to hit some balls hard, sure, but he’s never going to be good again. He’s injury prone. He’s not very smart. He doesn’t have confidence in himself. He’s getting older. Talent alone can’t overcome all that.

      It’s really sad. I’m glad I saw him at his best but it was difficult to watch him fall apart.

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      • Vladimir Guerrero says:

        I do the same thing for 20 years, hit 449 home runs.

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        • Ruki Motomiya says:

          Weren’t you also pretty durable, though?

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        • GMH says:

          You never struck out 100 times in a season, and for your career you whiffed only once every 8.3 at bats. So you are nothing like Josh Hamilton. You are more like Barry Bonds in a hurry.

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        • Mr Punch says:

          Besides, Vlad, what you did was something pitchers couldn’t possibly adjust to – basically, you managed to take adjustment off the table entirely. You might well have put that pitch in the dirt out of the park.

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        • AA says:

          You are Tony Gwynn with plus power.

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  8. Alex says:

    Why would you assume that Hamilton’s BABIP would just fall? His O-Contact is approximately ~42%, down 14% from his career averages. If before outs that he weakly hit are now strikeouts, it would result in a higher BABIP, as BABIP wouldn’t factor in those outs.

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    • Because his BABIP is .398

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      • Alex says:

        My point is that he is making less contact on pitches outside of the strikezone. Outs that were previously in play (and would factor in his BABIP) are now not included because they come in the form of a strikeout.

        I just don’t know how to quantify the number, as we’d need his averages on balls he hit outside of the strikezone.

        With his O-Contact % down you just can’t expect his BABIP to fall to career levels.

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  9. Hurtlocker says:

    Just think, the Angels still owe him almost $90 million for 2015-17.

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  10. Vernon Wells says:

    Talk about your sunk costs.

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  11. Johnny Ringo says:

    Not really impressed with the premise, though it’s an interesting question I suppose.

    I went to look at Hamilton’s stats, thinking he was most likely sucking, only to find a .284 average with a very nice .371 OBP.

    Reading this article you would think the guy is done! Hardly……

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    • Johnny Lingo says:

      Reading this article you would think his average is a mirage.

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    • GMH says:

      I agree. Breaking balls and change ups are far more effective if they are juxtaposed with fastballs. Hamilton is too good a hitter to continue to swing at bad off-speed pitches if that is all he sees. And if a pitcher continues to throw breaking ball after breaking ball, it is only a matter of time before he leaves one up in the middle of the plate. I think every pitcher realizes this, and so he will see fastballs, if only to set up the off-speed pitches.

      Hamilton has made his living because he rarely misses mistakes. And bad breaking balls and change ups are a lot easier to hit hard than bad fastballs.

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  12. Mr Baseball says:

    Yea, adjusted Hamilton is probably .245/.335/.450 That’s exactly average.

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  13. Wobatus says:

    When I think of the Angels I think if Kole Calhoun after Trout. 6th in baseball in wRC+ last 30 days. Trout’s 3rd.

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  14. Wobatus says:

    When I think of the Angels I think of Kole Calhoun after Trout. 6th in baseball in wRC+ last 30 days. Trout’s 3rd.

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  15. Mitch says:

    SOB, thanks for the reminder that Brandon Larson was a thing.

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  16. Plucky says:

    I’m not surprised to see Moises Alou on that list. You just could not get fastballs past that guy. Incredibly quick hands. It’s too bad the data only goes back to 2002, it would have been interesting to see 97-01 for him

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