Friday, August 20, 2010

We Can Agree On This: Josh Hamilton Is Good

Before the 2008 season, The Rangers went for a dramatic shift in their outfield. They traded prized prospect Edinson Volquez for Josh Hamilton and picked up Milton Bradley for the cheap. Hamilton was the intriguing one: the top pick from 1999, straight out of high school, had projections to be the next Ken Griffey Jr. A center fielder  who could run, hit, hit for power, throw out runners at home plate, rob home runs. He had it all. Of course we know the story after that: drugs and alcohol ruined his career and after playing his first year with the Reds in 2007 and putting up decent numbers (.292/.368/.554 with 19 home runs), the Rangers took a chance, given that they had a deep farm system of pitching talent that would replace Volquez.

Who could forget Josh's night in
the Bronx during the home run derby?
And we all know how 2008 turned out. In a word: magical. In a ton of words, well, Albert Chen does it better than me. From the game winning home run against the Angels, or the breathless home run derby in New York, every Ranger fan can account to where they were when those moments happened - Josh Hamilton did that. He helped revitalize a drowning franchise that hadn't seen any success since the year he was drafted. While only in his second season in the Majors, Josh led the new-look Rangers: young, talented and most importantly, good spirited.

Towards the end of 2008 however, Josh didn't look as magical and as imposing as he did from the start of April and May. In August Hamilton hit .243 and while he rebounded greatly in September with a .336 average, he finished the season with seven home runs in August/September. There were whispers of warning signs, that perhaps Hamilton was due for a rude awakening in 2009

Then 2009 happened. And it was worse than the prognosticators predicted. The Rangers made the next progressive step towards their playoff goal (87 wins, leading the wild card in August) but Josh Hamilton was not the same. Injuries plagued him to only 89 games. His multiple DL stints had writers and broadcasters question (with good reason) whether the damage he did to his body with drugs and alcohol in the past have made his body too frail to handle a 162-game season. He had the relapse exposed in Arizona. He only had 10 home runs, as his slugging dipped to .426. And while he's never had much of a great plate presence (126 strikeouts in 2008 to go with 64 walks), they magnified in 2009 as pitchers learned Hamilton's weakness: off-speed sliders/change ups/whatever in the dirt. His swinging strike percentage jumped from 14% to 15.5%. Not only was he flailing at the off-speed pitches away (which he admittedly did in 2008 his fair share) but he wasn't catching up to fastballs, he was late. A change in his stance from Texas hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo removed his "toe-tap" mechanic, and much of the blame, along with injuries, was put onto that. Quite simply, his power disappeared. The already-mentioned 10 home runs, and his home run/fly ball percentage was only 9.2%. In 2008? 19.2%. Hamilton wasn't putting many balls into the sky with much authority, to say the least, in 2009. His BABPIP (Batting Average on Balls Put Into Play) was .319, so a case of bad luck had nothing to do with it.

Then came more fears, worse than the late 2008 whispers - maybe we overvalued Hamilton. Perhaps 2008 was a fluke and a return to his 2007 stat line, perhaps even a little below that, was going to be his career norm. Maybe all Hamilton just was a 110-120 game player who could hit .270-.280, not walk a ton, and hit about 20-25 home runs a year. Is that bad? No. But after seeing what Josh did in 2008 it was a severe disappointment.

Which now brings us to 2010, which promised Hamilton moving to left field to avoid the wear and tear center field can do to the body and a new hitting coach, Clint Hurdle that would apparently ward off the magic curse that Rudy Jaramillo casted over the 2009 season. And it didn't start off too well. Here's what I wrote on April 8th of this year:

My point is, the three spot is usually reserved for the franchise guy (or one of them). So, how many franchise guys do you know get benched after two games? Yeah. For as much as A-Rod struggled in the first weeks in April around here, he was never sat down or benched. You just don't do that, that is, if you HAVE a franchise player to play there.

Hamilton looked awful and his plate discipline looked worse than ever before. Of course after that Josh has promptly gone bonkers on Major League Baseball and there doesn't seem to be anyone to stand in his way. He hit .454 in June and .418 in July. Unreal. Hamilton has recaptured the magic of 2008 and then some and the numbers back it up: his home run/fly ball percentage has returned to 19.4 (19.2 in 2008), he's hitting more ground balls (41.8 ground ball percentage compared to 36.4% in 2009) while upping his line drive percentage (22.1% 2010, 21.8% 2009, 21.5% 2008 and 21.7% in 2007). The increase in power has also shown in his double and home run numbers. He had 35 doubles in 2008. He has 37 already in 2010. 32 home runs  in 2008 and 26 home runs in 2010, so it's only a matter of time before he passes that number. His slugging percentage this year, as a result, is through the roof (.618). And while there is nothing sexier than that Major League leading .353 batting average, he's only supporting it with a .405 on-base percentage, showing that he still strikes out (87) way more than he walks (36). His luck has also increased a bit, with a BABPIP of .391, simply an unreal number. His WAR (Wins Above Replacement, which calculate how many wins he gains/loses vs a 'Replacement Level' player in his place) is 6.6. It was 1.4 in 2009.
Josh isn't the only one jumping for joy during
this 2010 season. Fans are too.

But looking past the numbers, Josh is clearly happier. The team is in first place by seven games, he returned as a worthy All-Star starter, he abandoned the toe-tap again, but now it's working (?) and he seems to be over the relapse the haunted him in 2009. And for all the talk about staying in left field, Hamilton has played center field 37 times, and hasn't moved out of the spot since Julio Borbon fell off the face of the earth and David Murphy started to get hot. But as the recent Boston series showed, he still throws himself around the field with reckless abandon, doing all it takes to make a catch or rob a home run or gun down a runner at second base. It is breathtaking to watch. It's 2008 xInfinity.

Which brings us to Tom Verducci calling Hamilton the best player in baseball. Then Joe Posnanski arguing that he isn't, and not only that, he's not one of the "top five players in baseball." Hamilton isn't the best player in baseball. He's played three and a half seasons and has only had two outstanding ones. The same goes for the top five player, though that's easier to argue for Hamilton.

But regardless of what you think about Josh Hamilton, we can all agree on this: Josh Hamilton is a pretty freakin' good baseball player right now. And for this 2010 Ranger team that can do something special, that's all that matters.

PS, remember that piece I referenced to where I talked about Josh's first week struggles? I also wrote this:

For all I know, this is a pretty mindless rant. For all I know, J-Ham will go nutzo for the next month, and we can just have a laugh about this incredibly, incredibly small mini-micro slump.
I'm definitely laughing now. More than I have during any other Ranger season.

(All advanced stats courtesy of FanGraphs)


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