Josh Hamilton’s three big risks

For someone who possesses the specific quality and depth of talent that Josh Hamilton does, there are a daunting number of questions and uncertainties that trail him like an unruly vapor. Yes, Hamilton wants many dollars and many years in the free-agent contract he will sign this winter, and for a club to submit to those demands, it will want answers to the questions, some of which we can’t possibly know.

There is the speculation about Hamilton in a large, vibrant city – like New York or Los Angeles – given his history of substance abuse, as if he’s too weak and those cities too polarizing and toxic for him to resist. This is no small concern for the clubs pursuing him, but for the outsiders, well, I don’t know. There’s no way for fans to discuss that with credibility. I suspect destructive substances find the lips and noses and veins of their consumers in any nook or cranny of this country if the impulse is strong enough. And I suspect, if the will is strong enough, someone can live sober anywhere, too.

There is the speculation about the wreckage years of hard abuse has done to Hamilton’s bones and joints and ligaments and muscles, thus making him more susceptible to injury than other players. This, too, is no small concern for teams when staring at a check with zeroes strung together like Mardi Gras beads, and it’s a topic of discussion because Hamilton has indeed dealt with a litany of injuries. But is he more prone to frailty because of the drugs, or was he just unlucky and prone to begin with? Again, I don’t see how the public comes to a conclusion with any sense of conviction. Molly Knight spoke with doctors about this, and while there is no question there are long-term effects of drug use, the doctors do not see a connection between Hamilton’s use and his subsequent baseball injuries.

If providing something of an answer to Hamilton’s risks is the game here, we’re 0-for-2.

But the third major concern with Hamilton relates to his tendencies at the plate, and this one we can discuss with some level of nuance and credibility.

The perception of Hamilton is that he’s a hacker, an unmitigated and unrestricted force with no sense of discipline or the faintest desire to learn any. In a basic sense, this is true. Hamilton does like to swing. And this, at times, costs him greatly. Last July, Rangers CEO Nolan Ryan expressed on a radio show his concern with Hamilton “giving at-bats away,” and that’s the prism through which, at least partially, Hamilton is viewed by teams: great talent, but too often unreliable because he gets himself out.

We can look at his swing percentage on pitches outside the strike zone rise from 35.9 to 36.7 to 42.3 in the last three seasons and naturally presume that Hamilton’s aggressiveness is a problem, that he has escalated his desire to swing away. He needs to reel it in a little. He needs to take more pitches. He has changed what made him so great. Sure, there’s something to say for that. Hamilton IS swinging more, no doubt. But I don’t think that brings us anywhere near a complete answer. I think Hamilton’s bigger issue isn’t so much what he is doing, but what he’s not doing.

“Discipline” is often mistaken for simply taking pitches. If a hitter swings at the first pitch too much, well, he must not be disciplined. If he doesn’t work the count, well, he’s too aggressive. But that’s not true. “Strike zone awareness” is far more important than passivity or faux discipline. Here’s what I mean: In 2012, Hamilton had 269 plate appearances (about 42 percent of his PAs for the season) end on 0-0, 1-0, 0-1, 1-1, 2-0 or 2-1 counts. Know what he did in those PAs? This: .426/.424/.891/1.315 with 32 homers. If we add the 91 PAs in 1-2 counts in which he was terrible, his line looks like this: .360/.358/.744/1.102 with 35 homers. Point is, you don’t take pitches just for the hell of saying you took one.

Yes, there is a strong argument to make about Hamilton’s lack of strike zone awareness considering all of the pitches he flails at, one which I would not argue. But some of that swinging is fueled by a residue of stubbornness that is left on the surface of incredible gifts. Because Hamilton is so talented, he gets away with some poor habits that others simply can’t. And because he can, there’s no urgency to change. In the last four seasons in those same counts mentioned above, Hamilton is hitting .340/.356/.856 on pitches outside of the strike zone. When Hamilton goes through slumps, you can see why, rather than tweak his approach, he may think, “Screw it, keep swingin’ it.”

So, I’m not sure Hamilton’s raw aggressiveness is the problem. The problem is that pitchers have adjusted to that aggressiveness, and Hamilton is happily and blindly living like it’s 2010, failing to counter them. Here are some numbers over the last four seasons and see if you notice something. Against right-handers:

’09 vs. RHP: 42 percent zone, 57 percent swing, 29 percent miss.

’10 vs. RHP: 41 percent zone, 54 percent swing, 24 percent miss.

’11 vs. RHP: 38 percent zone, 54 percent swing, 25 percent miss.

’12 vs. RHP: 32 percent zone, 56 percent swing, 34 percent miss.

Because of the damage Hamilton can do, pitchers began staying away from him more and more. But as they expanded the strike zone, Hamilton never adjusted with them, continuing to swing away at relatively the same rate. You could look at the raw “chase” percentages or the outside-of-zone swing rates, and they would tell you most of the story. But I think there’s importance context missing, and that context doesn’t come to light until you consider the zone percentages.

Hamilton’s outside-of-zone swing rates will inflate, but that doesn’t necessarily fit the narrative that he’s being significantly more aggressive than normal. It means that he’s seeing fewer pitches in the strike zone and, be it cockiness or stupidity or supreme self-confidence, is gambling that his talent is good enough to prevail, and so he’s not taking some pitches he should. Well, at some point – usually when pitchers begin laughing after they realize they can repeatedly throw changeups well off the plate and you’ll still take a whack – you begin to lose those gambles.

The numbers aren’t nearly as pronounced against left-handers, but there’s a different adjustment hidden in them that Hamilton is failing to make:

’09 vs. LHP: 44 percent zone, 55 percent swing, 30 percent miss.

’10 vs. LHP: 45 percent zone, 54 percent swing, 32 percent miss.

’11 vs. LHP: 45 percent zone, 57 percent swing, 32 percent miss.

’12 vs. LHP: 43 percent zone, 60 percent swing, 42 percent miss.

Lefties have gradually thrown fewer pitches in the zone to Hamilton, while he has a little less gradually swung at more of them. The thing that stands out is the miss percentage last season, which out of nowhere jumped 10 percent. Lefties began noticing that Hamilton – and this could speak to pitch recognition, a flaw of his that isn’t so easily explained – had a tough time (or chose not to?) laying off breaking pitches, and therefore there wasn’t much reason to challenge him with a fastball. And so we see the change in the approach against Hamilton: In 2010 and 2011, lefties threw him 13 percent more fastballs than in 2012. And, of course, Hamilton did nothing to counter them.

It’s a dangerous way of living, Hamilton’s way. He has become a little anxious (swinging at about 3 percent more total pitches in ’12 compared to ’10), but I’d argue that his tendencies as a hitter haven’t drastically changed in the last season or two like has been portrayed, but that pitchers have changed while Hamilton hasn’t added anything to his side of the scale. We’re in a cycle where pitchers are testing Hamilton, seeing if he’s aware of what they’re doing at all, and so far he’s letting it go. I suspect he is aware but, again, there’s the positive reinforcement of those early count numbers. Screw it, keep swingin’ it. At some point, he’ll need to lay off a few pitches to swing the scale somewhere back to even (where pitches start throwing more pitches in the zone again), and then his normal aggressiveness will do what it does.

We don’t know how much injuries and other maladies have to do with this, but we do know there has been dried corneas and sensitive eyes and adductor problems and abdominal issues and a broken arm and other things through the years. And it says something incredible about Hamilton’s talent that through all of this last year, he still produced 4.4 WAR.

Oh, one other thing: Hamilton came in at minus-19 runs (per 1,200 innings) saved in center last season and plus-5 in left. If 10 “runs” is equivalent to 1.0 WAR of value, then if he played those centerfield games at DH, his 4.4 WAR theoretically becomes 6.3 because he’s not on the field to take value away defensively. If you take some of those games and play him in left, he probably pushes 7.0 – all without making even ONE adjustment at the dish in a season where people were wondering what’s wrong with him.

Email: Twitter: @TMitrosilis

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