Josh Hamilton: 32 Is The Number

For a 31-year-old outfielder, we have surprisingly little information about Josh Hamilton. 3000 or so plate appearances, three full seasons, and he’s already on the long side of thirty. We all know the reasons why, but it leaves us looking at his different peripheral metrics — all oscillating — and wondering which number should get our focus. None of it might matter as much as his age, on the other hand.

It’s not all bad. Hamilton set career highs in isolated slugging percentage (.292), home runs (43), runs (105), and full season walk rate (9.4%). He hit more home runs per fly ball than he ever had (25.6%), and his line drive rate remained above-average (and above 21%), as it has every year he’s played in the big leagues. We shouldn’t get too wrapped up in his September / October failure (a “terrible” .245/.330/.543) if he’s going to continue being a high-average slugger with center-field eligibility, right?

The most worrisome peripherals (in both fantasy and real-life baseball) concern his strikeout rate, and that is the one late-season split that adds weight to the post-peak side of the ledger. Hamilton struck out 34.9% of the time in the last month-plus of the season. He also struck out over 30% of the time in June. For the season, he posted his career-worst swinging strike rate (20%) and strikeout rate (25.5%).

We’ve written about this some before. In the past, Hamilton has kept his strikeout rate near average (19.7% career) despite a poor swinging strike rate (14.9% career) by being aggressive. He was so aggressive that he got a pitch to hit before he could strike out, perhaps. At least, that’s the theory behind him being an outlier on the graph relating swinging strike rate to strikeout rate. And David Cameron did a good job pointing out the flaws in his approach this year, and the fact that Hamilton only made minor adjustments this season. Last but not least, Jeff Zimmerman aged batting components and found that strikeout rate began to rise after 30.

None of that paints a pretty picture about Hamilton’s ability to make contact going forward. And, since he was already an outlier when it came to strikeout rate compared to his swinging strike rate and plate discipline — he has swung at 38.7% of pitches he’s seen that were outside the zone, almost ten percent higher than the league average over his time-frame — you’d be right to worry about his strikeout rate (and therefore his batting average) going forward.

He has always had a nice batting average on balls in play. Last year, his .320 BABIP helped him to a .285 batting average despite striking out over a quarter of the time. His career .335 BABIP suggests that he might continue enjoying that sort of help, and lo and behold, his 2012 xBABIP was almost identical to his actual result. And even if line drive rates have poor year-to-year correlation, the fact that he’s had a line rive rate over 21% in every season suggests that it is a skill he owns.

But a 20% swinging strike rate is difficult to overcome, even with good batted ball results. The swinging strike rate in baseball has been rising, but if you look back at all the seasons since 2002, when we started tracking swinging strike rate here, Hamilton’s 2012 number is tops in the category. It’s not particularly close, either. Miguel Olivo‘s 2011 (19%) and Mark Reynolds‘ 2009 (17.8%) serve only to highlight Hamilton’s whiffitude.

The top 50 seasons by swinging strike rate produced a .265 batting average. But that includes a hefty amount of 14% whiffers. If you limit it to the top 25 (15.3% swSTR as the floor), your batting average drops to… .264. That small difference is probably due to the fact that power is correlated with whiffs, and also helps your BABIP and your batting average (think of the difference between a line drive landing in the infield versus one that lands in the outfield).

So Hamilton’s power, and line drive stroke, will help him reduce the negative effects of his declining strikeout rate. And the fact that last year’s strikeout rate was almost six percentage points worse than his career rate — a fact that suggests that some regression to his career levels would offset his age-related decline — that’s also a mitigating reality. And so you can easily return to many of the power-related career-highs he set last year and dream upon a better strikeout rate in 2013.

But then you can’t forget that he’ll be 32 next season. And that’s post-peak by any aging curve.

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7 Responses to “Josh Hamilton: 32 Is The Number”

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  1. LuckyStrikes says:

    Love Hamilton; one of my favorite players. But no way he should get more than four years, if that.

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  2. GoodasGoldy says:

    Hambone tests the limits of all predictive systems doesn’t he? The outlier of outliers. He’s hitting 32 which is everyone’s favorite “fall from prime” point. But only because a marginally higher than average percentage of players fall under it’s spell. But then, these are mostly players who have gone well past their “learning curve peaks” at 32 and have less to learn and ergo less to offset ages effects.

    The “peak years” don’t start at around 27 just because something magical happens to our bodies at 27. It’s got an awful lot to do with those first 3000+ plate appearances no? Hamilton is just reaching his learning curve peak really. His odd streaks for such a consistent LD hitter tell you he’s still learning his own tendencies and pitchers tendencies. He hasn’t quite put all the knowledge together yet is my guess.

    It’s going to be very interesting to see where this guy’s peak years really fall (or if they are already gone). Will he still be rising with experience or falling with age, or will he have a longer than normal peak (for a guy his age) because experience gained is fighting an even or winning battle with aging skills.

    There’s just no one quite like this guy so as a long time keeper on my rotosquad, I just ignore the projection systems and pray mightily.

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    • lan says:

      Part of it is physical… around 27-30 men’s growth hormone production starts to drop off by 2% a year. Which leads to a drop in power, slower recovery from injuries and worse eye-sight.

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      • GoodasGoldy says:

        That’s interesting that physical things begin dropping at around 27-30 while at the same time we can see some kind of a statistical peak performance period occurring during that same 3 yr period.

        Age aside, Hamilton could still have a surprising performance leap result from the knowledge he is gaining from his still young experience level . It’d be odd to see it happen at 32 but again he’s not turning 32 in “hitting experience”. Remember, he really only had 140 PA’s above A Ball and 95 of those came in 2001 (at AA) with the next 45 happening at AAA a full 6 yrs later. You’d have to look at young WWII guys to find some comps for that kind of beginning to a career.

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  3. Kyle says:

    Honestly, with how baseball contracts and salaries are with guys who are going to be well past their prime getting near or 30 million a year like A-Rod, Fielder, Pujols, etc… he should get paid. But for only 3 seasons with an option year if he produces like he has so far in his career. 3 years, 95 million wouldn’t be such a horrible gamble when you think about how it’s only a 3 year definite deal giving a guy a hell of a lot of money who’s 32 and strikes out A LOT.

    I see his career doing something like this…
    2013: 580 at-bats, .287 BA, 41 homeruns, 115 RBI, 13 steals
    2014: 539 at-bats,. 294 BA, 36 homeruns, 104 RBI, 9 steals
    2015: 448 at-bats, .284 BA, 29 homeruns, 90 RBI, 7 steals
    2016: 515 at-bats .262 BA, 34 homeruns, 97 RBI, 7 steals
    2017: 475 at-bats, .281 BA 24 homeruns, 85 RBI, 2 steals
    and so on…

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  4. jerry atrix says:

    32 is old for white man standards. latinos and asians are still in their prime til 34ish.

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