By Marc Normandin
It's been a rough year for Josh Hamilton, in both the seasonal and calendar senses. In his first year with the Angels after signing a five-year, $123 million free agent contract, Hamilton has hit .214/.269/.382. Sure, he's playing in a park we all knew would damage his numbers, but even adjusting for that doesn't tell a particularly pretty story: His OPS+, which adjusts for park and league difficulty, comes in at 82. Over a full season, Hamilton has never finished with an OPS+ below 130. Drastic doesn't even begin to describe that drop.
Hamilton's struggles have caused the Angels problems, as they invested a significant portion of their offseason moves and money into him, and they've come away with a player that is below replacement level according to Baseball Reference and Fangraphs, and one who is just ever so slightly above that level according to Baseball Prospectus. They're paying him to be a superstar, and he's performing like a generic scrub pulled out of Triple-A. It's not the reason, but it's one of the major reasons why the Angels find themselves 10.5 games out of first place in the AL West before the month of June has even finished.
Last year, Albert Pujols was the long-term disappointment, the player signed to a contract that even the Angels had to have known would eventually blow up in their face when he was old and expensive. The key, and the reason for blatantly disregarding that potentially awful future, was for the present: the Angels were so very close in 2011, and adding Pujols (along with starting pitcher C.J. Wilson) was supposed to help them now, when they were in a position to strike. Flags fly forever and all that, and when you looked at Pujols struggling in, say, 2020, you'd still have your banner from the last decade to console you.
That didn't work, as the Angels missed the playoffs after an 8-15 April essentially doomed them in the competitive AL West. This time around, they went with the same strategy, locking up another mega-free agent in his 30s. And while Hamilton didn't sign a decade-spanning deal like his predecessor, five years for $123 million is still a huge chunk of money and time, and quite the commitment to a player with plenty of question marks.
Those question marks are why it's hard to dismiss Hamilton's struggles from April through June as just a slump. Using the word "slump" implies that you're playing below your level. This is likely true to a degree -- Hamilton probably isn't quite this bad -- but as time passes, it becomes harder and harder to believe that he's significantly better than he's played this year.
No, three months of the season isn't a large sample … but that's not the only time frame in which Hamilton has struggled. The source of his troubles, oddly enough, might be his utter dominance of the league for the first two months of 2012. Hamilton hit .368/.420/.764 with 21 homers across April and May last season. He was the center of highlight reels almost continuously, for shot after shot, and he looked to have a real chance at the American League single-season home run record if he could keep up his outright silly pace. The league understandably stopped giving him pitches to hit, though, and pitchers started to tiptoe around him, throwing outside of the zone or on the outer portions of the plate where they could at least limit the damage.
Things didn't quite work out as pitchers expected, though. Instead of giving them a careful way around Hamilton, he kept swinging. And missing. It didn't take long to notice that Hamilton was hacking at pitches he couldn't do much with outside of the zone, and the league continued to pound him outside in order to turn this player who was an absolute giant for two months into a shadow of his former self. Hamilton hit .245/.322/.487 from June 1 onward, and he struck out 29 percent of the time in that stretch. Entering 2012, Hamilton had only struck out 18 percent of the time -- something was different, and the league had caught on.
He obviously still had his power, but he could be contained. So long as a pitcher didn't leave him a pitch he could crush, he was beatable. He struck out 51 percent of the time with two strikes on him, while the rest of the AL punched out just 39 percent of the time. The fear was gone, and pitchers knew they could get him if they just attacked the right way. His line still looked pretty solid, even considering that, but you have to remember, too, that he played in a park that inflates offense with the best of them: Hamilton hit .261/.340/.511 in Texas from June 1 through the season's end, but just .229/.304/.464 outside of it.
It's no surprise, then, that he's fallen even further now that he's just a little bit older, his bat just a little bit slower, and his home park that much more pitcher-friendly. Combine his play from June 1 last year up through his stats as of the start of Wednesday's game, and you get a hitter who has put up a .232/.300/.442 line. He's still got plenty of pop, as the .210 Isolated Power suggests, but his on-base percentage is well below where it needs to be, and that has more to do with his inability to collect hits than it does a lack of walks.
Since June 1 of last year, Hamilton has struck out 201 times in 737 plate appearances, or, 27 percent of the time. It only takes about 150 plate appearances for strikeout rate to stabilize for a batter, and at this point, Hamilton has rolled over that 150 plate appearance mark nearly five times in 13 months. It's probably safe to say that swinging and missing a lot is just part of what the 32-year-old outfielder does these days.
All those swings-and-misses put pressure on Hamilton's ability to post a high batting average on balls in play. He's only managed a .254 mark this year, and while that could and likely will rise with time -- again, he's probably not 650 OPS bad -- it's not necessarily going to be high enough to justify his contract, nor to save the Angels' season. What he's hit in the last year is probably a reasonable expectation: Inflated a bit by his old home park, but also dragged down by his current slump. Even if you toss him another 20 points in his slash line across the board, you're still talking about a .250/.320/.460 hitter making nearly $25 million a year, and that's in the first year of his deal. If you want to be really generous and add 30 points, $25 million still doesn't look great.
He's not a lost cause yet. He could still correct his course and alter his approach, going back to the good old days when a pitch outside or on the outer part of the plate wasn't necessarily something he'd take a hack at. David Ortiz had significant stretches just a few years back where his bat speed seemed to be betraying him as he aged, and he was swinging at pitches he never would have during his peak in an attempt to compensate. Hamilton is maybe unlikely to ever go back to those days fully, in terms of production -- not everyone can be David Ortiz, you know -- but recapturing as much of that old magic as possible would at least make him useful again, albeit overpaid. The fact that the Angels haven't been able to fix him in the time they've had him, though, suggests that that might not be in the cards. Let's not forget, the Rangers couldn't fix him either, and they let him walk away to their rivals.
It's not Hamilton's fault that the Angels offered him a contract that no one else seemed willing to give him -- remember the early days of the off-season market, when multiple clubs were interested, assuming they could get potentially damaged goods for a year or two? He will, however, become the face of their struggles, given his contract, and given the fact that his teammate Pujols has shaken off at least some of the cobwebs since his initial failures. He might not continue to struggle to the degree he has, but the way he has declined, and not steadily, over the last year suggests that the Angels and their fans are unlikely to be satisfied with whatever production he eventually settles into.
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Marc Normandin writes and edits for Over the Monster, a Boston Red Sox blog, as well as SB Nation's baseball hub. He's one of many behind the e-book "The Hall of Nearly Great," and has written for BaseballProspectus, ESPN and others. You can follow him on Twitter at @Marc_Normandin.