There were definitely warning signs. Despite coming off the second-best offensive season of his career, Josh Hamilton was a bit of a fantasy lightening rod last offseason. There was plenty of evidence that his age, approach and new home park would contribute to him being a poor fantasy option. At the same time, Hamilton’s upside was tough to ignore. Over the previous five years, Hamilton showed he was capable of being the best hitter in baseball. That upside was the reason Hamilton remained an early fantasy draft pick despite legitimate concerns. His failures made it hard to pick another player for fantasy LVP.
What went wrong? First off, let’s examine the three factors referenced above. Hamilton’s age was undoubtedly a reason for his decline. As Eno Sarris noted last November, Hamilton was about the begin the decline phase of his career. His home park was also an issue. In a limited 294 plate appearance sample, Hamilton hit just .236/.289/.401 at home. Angel Stadium also sapped some of his power, as expected. Hamilton hit just 9 of his home runs at home, with 12 coming on the road. Perhaps the most troubling evidence Hamilton would decline was his approach. In late April, Dave Cameron detailed how Hamilton was “swinging himself into oblivion.” Surprisingly, Hamilton finished the year with his lowest swing rate since 2010.
Despite a severely diminished stat line, Hamilton’s swing rates actually trended in the right direction.
Hamilton didn’t suddenly become a patient hitter, but there appears to be a conscious effort to take more pitches. Oddly, it didn’t lead to a higher walk rate. In fact, Hamilton’s walk rate declined from 9.4% to 7.4%.
A big part of that is likely due to pitchers going right after Hamilton this season, when they would usually attempt to pitch around him in the past. Though Hamilton did make more contact, he wasn’t driving the ball at all. His crazy 25.6% home run rate from 2012 was bound to drop, but Hamilton actually posted his lowest home run rate since his injury-riddled 2009. On top of that, lefties became a significant problem. Hamilton had always at least been passable against left-handers, but bottomed out in 2013. After posting a +100 wRC+ in five straight seasons, Hamilton plummeted to to a 61 wRC+ against southpaws. For reference, Adeiny Hechavarria hit slightly than Hamilton against lefties. Yes, this was in a small 193 plate appearance sample, but anyone who watched Hamilton against lefties saw that his struggles weren’t just bad luck.
Combine that drastic drop-off with some expected decline, and suddenly you have a player who is hard to trust going forward. It was easy to look at Hamilton coming into the year and see a declining player, but it was tough to expect such a large collapse. Hamilton’s approach finally caught up to him, and his numbers didn’t improve when he attempted to fix that issue. Hamilton is likely to fall in fantasy drafts next year, perhaps to the point where his upside starts to look tempting. Given the number of obstacles he’ll have to overcome in order to regain his value, it’s starting to look like that upside may no longer exist.