The season started so well, too.
Josh Hamilton, the $125 million man who will be patrolling an outfield corner for the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim through the end of the 2017 season, will miss six to eight weeks -- which, including his minor league rehab trip, will work out to a minimum of two months -- thanks to a full tear of a ligament in the thumb of his left hand which will require surgery. He tore this ligament by sliding headfirst into first base to try and beat a force play, which remains just about the stupidest way for any player to injure themselves on the diamond itself. (It's arguable whether hitting yourself over the head with a bat in frustration, or any of the various bizarre yardwork injuries sustained over the last couple decades, are any worse than sliding headfirst into first base when the first baseman has his foot on the bag.) But the injury itself isn't the real issue, because nothing in baseball ever exists in a vacuum.
The real issue is that the Angels will pay an average of $25 million per year (base salary, not accounting for pro-rated signing bonus or charitable donations) for each of the next four years to learn a very, very costly lesson about megastar veteran free agents. Even a team with engaged ownership that's willing to spend like the Angels should know the virtues of moderation, regardless of what the guys across town are doing.
Hamilton's injury is unfortunate -- he had a 1.286 OPS through the first eight games of the season and was squarely in the middle of one of the white-hot streaks that, along with ice-cold slumps, define his career in the majors -- and entirely the result of bad decision-making. But when a team signs a guy to a five-year deal that starts at age 32, there's a certain understanding that he's unlikely to play 150 games a year every year. The fact that Hamilton is going to miss two months of one of the "cheap" years of his deal -- Cot's Contracts lists him as making $15 million last year and this year, $23 million next season, and $30 million in each of the final two years of the contract -- isn't something that will turn the signing from a positive to a negative for the Halos. That ship sailed when he was barely a league-average bat in 2013. All this injury can do is further hamper Hamilton in his efforts to climb out of the hole the Angels dug for both him and themselves when they agreed to give him all that money.
Then again, it's a credit to Hamilton's strength and the support of those around him that all of the legitimate problems with his contract have to do with on-the-field issues; he seems to have put any remaining ghosts of the addiction that almost derailed his career (and entire life) behind him. To all appearances, he's been sober and functional for over seven years now. There's a thankfully-small subsection of baseball fans who like to point to Hamilton's struggles at the plate or in the field as signs that he's relapsed, usually with a smug sort of I-told-you-so glee, and there are a lot of words I'd use to describe these people if this weren't an all-ages site. Suffice it to say they're a mean bunch by both definitions: cruel and base. Whatever his flaws as a player may be, Hamilton seems to have moved past the far more serious ones that kept him from functioning as a person.
No, it's the kind of player Hamilton is on the diamond that made him such a worrying signing in the first place, especially for the kind of money the Angels ended up spending. Hamilton is primarily a "feel" hitter with big pop -- a see-the-ball, hit-the-ball kind of guy who doesn't mind trading strikeouts for points of slugging percentage. When he's on, this leads to games like his four-home-run masterpiece against the Baltimore Orioles on May 8th, 2012, part of a blistering-hot start to the season that had him OPSing 1.184 after the first two months. And when he's off, it leads to stretches like July of that same year, when he put up an OPS of .607 over 22 games. This in and of itself is not something that's unique to Josh Hamilton; the league is full of streaky hitters who are great when they're on and abysmal when they're off. Nor is consistency an a priori virtue. In 2011, Hamilton's month-by-month OPS values were all within .110 points of his .882 OPS on the year; in 2010, only one month -- August -- came within that margin of his seasonal line, but no one would claim that his 1.044 OPS in that season was somehow worse than the consistent season that followed it. An unpredictable player with a higher baseline for performance will always be more valuable than a consistent one with a lower baseline.
But when that baseline falls, watch out. And the warning signs were there for Hamilton, especially with regards to his plate discipline. Hamilton won the American League MVP Award in 2010; the 2010-2011 offseason is a fantastic place to divide his career in half, both numerically and narratively. Once that's done, some of the trends that emerge are instructive, if not entirely surprising.
From 2007 to 2010, Hamilton struck out 18.5 percent of the time he stepped to the plate in 1977 PA, and walked 8.3 percent of the time. From 2011 to 2014, that walk rate has held steady at 8.2 percent, but the strikeout rate has spiked to 22.8 percent in 1843 PA. From 2007 to 2010, he swung at 34.5 percent of the pitches he saw outside the strikezone; from 2011 to 2014, that nearly doubled to 42.4 percent. And as one might expect, as Hamilton swung at more pitches outside the zone, he started connecting with a smaller percentage of them -- he made contact 58 percent of the time on pitches outside the zone in the first three seasons of his career, and on 56.3 percent of pitches seen outside the zone over the last three. There's no numerical way to quantify the quality of contact Hamilton was making on those balls-turned-strikes; hitters with Hamilton's raw talent can turn a pitch just about anywhere in their zip code into a hit if they put enough wood on it. But pitchers around the league were satisfied enough with the results that they began taking Hamilton outside the zone en masse: 44.5 percent of the pitches Hamilton saw between 2007 and 2010 were in the zone, compared to just 37.4 percent between 2011 and today. All of these numbers are related, and they all paint a picture of a guy getting more and more aggressive right as he ages into the part of his career when his physical ability to turn aggressiveness into production begins to decline.
The Angels also had to know that Josh Hamilton was not going to be a quality defensive outfielder throughout the life of the contract. The Rangers allowed Hamilton to patrol center field occasionally throughout his time in Texas, but this was mainly because the team had higher-priority players to DH -- Milton Bradley, Andruw Jones, Vladimir Guerrero and Michael Young. When Hamilton was in center, it was because his bat could carry his poor fielding; the other two starting outfielders were Nelson Cruz and David Murphy, neither of whom could even fake center field. Hamilton's last season in Texas ended with a number of gaffes in center that were so memorable they fueled speculation about Hamilton's eyesight. Even without defensive metrics to back the assertion, it was clear Hamilton was firmly a corner outfielder at the time he hit free agency, and would likely need to move to designated hitter in the not-so-distant future.
Again, that's all fine -- in a vacuum. But the previous year, the Angels signed a first baseman by the name of Albert Pujols (he used to play for the St. Louis Cardinals; you may have heard of him) to a decade-long contract that would end when Pujols was age 41. While no one expected Pujols to decline as quickly as he did, there was already an overlap in the 2016 and 2017 seasons -- Pujols's age 36-37 seasons and Hamilton's age 35-36 -- when conceivably both men would no longer be able to add positive value in the field. The fact that this conflict emerged in 2013 and 2014 instead is a difference of degree, not of kind. When they put the contracts on the table, the Angels knew (or should have known) that at some point this decade they could spend a couple seasons playing two DHs everyday -- one of them in the field -- and paying over $40 million a year for that privilege. Perhaps the optimists in them won out, and they were so convinced Albert Pujols was a latter-day Stan Musial they never stopped to consider what they'd do if he instead turned out to be Jimmie Foxx. Perhaps they thought so little of left field they assumed they could stash Hamilton there indefinitely.
Regardless, it's clear to see the off-the-field reasons why the Angels made the call they did, even given the obvious drawbacks at the time. They were flush with cash and recent success, and blessed with an ownership committed to leaving behind a winning legacy. The Dodgers' sale in early 2012 -- and the subsequent 180-degree turnaround in spending and budgetary habits of the Angels' only rival for the Los Angeles market -- had that ownership feeling like another splash signing was necessary to keep pace both in the headlines and in their own division. While it was quickly obvious to a great many outside observers that both signings had the potential to go bad, no one expected them to be disasters almost from the minute the ink dried.
That, ultimately, is why Hamilton's injury is as unfortunate as it is: It robs him of a chance to not only stop the bleeding but maybe even heal the wound. A week ago, it seemed like the stars had aligned for the Angels. Not only were Pujols and Hamilton both healthy, but so was the entire revamped rotation, while the two presumptive contenders for the AL West crown -- the Rangers and the Oakland Athletics -- were both fielding staffs with hasty injury call-ups from AAA. With a big month, the Angels could -- and still can, really -- force the other powers in the West to play catch-up to them at least for a time, and build momentum and confidence to the extent that both of those things exist and matter. (Generally speaking, though, winning is always going to be better for morale than the alternative.) And with a big month, Josh Hamilton could have been right in the center of that -- making up for a lost year in 2013, and making good on the promises implicit in being paid $125 million to play baseball for five years.
Instead, he slid headfirst into first on a force play on Tuesday night, and he'll be on the disabled list until late May or June. Hamilton said he did it because he thought it was the right way to play the game, and that's almost certainly the truth. Maybe he thought it was the right thing to do because it would get him to the bag faster, though he's probably been told by now that science thinks otherwise. Maybe he slid in headfirst because he thought it would endear him to Angels fans, who haven't been quiet in their displeasure with his play since joining the team. (It's a nice thought, though probably not one that goes through many players' heads as they're barreling down the first base line.) Or maybe he just saw first base stretch out in front of him, saw Justin Smoak standing there, glove tensing slightly to receive a throw both men knew was coming, and maybe he didn't think at all; maybe it just happened the way it did for no particular conscious reason. Maybe it never does.
The reason doesn't matter, and it never has nor will. Baseball cares about intentions even less than excuses, and about redemption less than both. Josh Hamilton will lose six to eight crucial weeks of his season, and the Angels will be poorer for it.