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Injuries Hamper Josh Hamilton

In 2008, OF Josh Hamilton finally turned in the kind of season that scouts envisioned when Tampa Bay selected him with the 1st overall pick in the 1999 amateur draft.

Shipped from the Reds to the Rangers in a December 2007 challenge trade for RHP Edinson Volquez, Hamilton crushed to the tune of a .385 wOBA. The lefty clubbed 32 home runs, while posting a .226 ISO and a HR/FB rate of 19.2%.

Sure, the Ballpark in Arlington played a part. According to ESPN’s park factors, Arlington has boosted run scoring by seven percent compared to a neutral ballpark from 2007-2009, while increasing HR production by 14 percent. But Hamilton was no ball park creation. He posted 29.7 Park-Adjusted Batting Runs in ’08. Even accounting for the hitter-happy tendencies of his home field, Hamilton was three wins above average with the bat.

Many fantasy players ponied up a primo pick on Hamilton entering 2009. Per Fantasy Gameday’s Average Draft Position and Scarcity Report compiled back in February, Hamilton’s ADP was ninth overall.

Unfortunately, Hamilton’s various aches and pains in ’09 had owners keeling over in anguish as well. The 28 year-old dealt with a laundry list of injuries, most notably a partially torn abdominal muscle requiring surgery in June and a pinched nerve in his lower back that effectively made him a spectator in September.

Getting just 365 PA during the season, Hamilton limped to a .321 wOBA. His ISO plunged to .158. Hamilton hit more fly balls than usual (41.8 percent, compared to about 33 percent from 2007-2008), but those extra flys died in the outfield pasture. His HR/FB rate dipped to 9.2%. Josh was below-average with the stick, with -3.6 Park-Adjusted Batting Runs.

Hamilton still slammed fastballs, hitting them for +1.36 runs per 100 pitches. But anything off-speed flummoxed him: -0.44 runs/100 versus sliders, -2.43 against curveballs and -3.19 versus changeups.

He was extremely aggressive during his banner 2008 campaign, swinging at 34.7% of pitches thrown out of the strike zone (25% MLB average) while taking a cut at 80.6% of pitches within the zone (66% MLB average). But Hamilton was even less selective in 2009. He had a 36.1 O-Swing%, with an 85.7 Z-Swing%.

Hamilton swung at more pitches within the zone than any other batter with at least 350 PA (Pablo Sandoval was a distant second, at 82.9%). However, he made contact just 80 percent of the time that he offered at a pitch over the dish (88% MLB average).

His O-Swing% was 13th-highest among hitters with 350+ PA. With Hamilton anxious to get the lumber off his shoulder (he swung at the 9th-most pitches among all batters), he posted a 65.3 first-pitch strike percentage (58% MLB average). Josh got behind the pitcher 0-and-1 or put the ball in play on the first pitch at the sixth-highest rate in the majors. His walk rate dipped from 9.3% to 6.7%.

It’s important to keep in mind that all of these numbers came in what amounts to slightly more than a half season’s worth of PA, while Hamilton was far less than 100 percent healthy. The lack of plate discipline is somewhat troubling. But if Josh can remain upright in 2010, there’s certainly reason to believe that he can bounce back.

Bill James 2010 projections are out, and Hamilton is tabbed for a .372 wOBA. While James’ projections tend to smile upon hitters more than most other systems, it wouldn’t be surprising to see a more healthy Hamilton post a wOBA somewhere in the .360-.370 range.

Hamilton presents a dilemma for fantasy owners entering 2010. On one hand, he certainly won’t cost a premium draft pick, and a healthier Hamilton has the potential to yield a high return on investment. But on the other hand, should anyone really assume that he will be healthier? Hamilton has three major league seasons under his belt. He has missed big chunks of the year in two of those three seasons.

So, are you feeling lucky? Personally, I would expect Hamilton to hit in the .360-.370 wOBA range, while serving a DL stint or two that limits him to 400-some PA. What do you guys think?