Are Nolan Ryan's Harsh Words a Sign Josh Hamilton's Future as a Ranger Is Over?
You don't need to be a rocket scientist or a pompous sabermetrician to realize that Josh Hamilton just hasn't been very good over the last two months. All you need are your own two eyes.
Though this is not to say that the numbers don't speak for themselves. Per Baseball-Reference.com, Hamilton is hitting .227/.304/.435 with a .739 OPS in 56 games since May 14. In nine games since the All-Star break, he's hitting .171/.184/.286 with a .470 OPS.
It's gotten to a point where people are starting to voice their frustration with Hamilton, and we're not just talking about fans, either.
Here's what he had to say about Hamilton's approach at the plate, via The Dallas Morning News:
I think we’re all seeing the same thing. You’re right that some of his at bats aren’t very impressive from the standpoint that he doesn’t work deep into the count, he’s swinging at a lot of bad pitches, he just doesn’t seem to be locked in at all. So what you’re hoping is that his approach will change and he’ll start giving quality at bats because there’s a lot of those at bats that he just gives away. One of the things I’ve always commented on is I can’t ever say that I ever saw Henry [Hank] Aaron give an at bat away. I think as a hitter, you have to go up there and you have to focus on the guy that you’re facing and what he’s been doing as far as the game’s concerned and try to engage what your attempt to do as far as getting a hit off him.
Giving away at-bats? He's no Hank Aaron? He's not focusing?
Ouch. These are harsh words that no hitter wants to hear.
When asked if Hamilton may be reluctant to make any changes to his swing or his approach at the plate, Ryan backed off...to an extent:
I just don’t know where Josh is. Sometimes hitters just get out of sync and it takes them awhile to get their rhythm back and get their swing back. Right now, you can’t say, “Well, it looks like something with his swing.” He’s just not being selective and dug himself a hole that he needs to get out of.
OK, the question has to be asked: Does Ryan have a legit gripe with Hamilton's approach, or is he just being a big meanie?
He has a legit gripe. For that, we go to the numbers.
Per ESPN.com, Hamilton is only seeing 3.54 pitches per plate appearance. There are only 10 players in the American League who are seeing fewer pitches per plate appearance than he is. That's as good a sign as any that Hamilton is indeed not being selective when he goes to the plate.
Now, you can argue that part of the problem is that pitchers simply aren't giving Hamilton anything to hit. After seeing what he did in the first six weeks of the season, this is very much true, and it's hard to blame them.
But the problem here is that this is all the more reason why Hamilton should be working the count, hence Ryan's gripe about giving away at-bats. When he goes to the plate, Hamilton should be looking to get into deep counts. The longer a given at-bat lasts, the more likely he is to get a challenge pitch that he can hit. Baseball 101 stuff.
Hamilton isn't doing this. He's swinging at the first pitch he sees 49 percent of the time, according to Baseball-Reference.com. Per FanGraphs, he's swinging at over 46 percent of the pitches he sees outside of the strike zone, and he's currently sitting on an absurd 19.9 swinging-strike percentage. A hitter as good as him has no business being such a free-swinger.
So yeah, Ryan has a gripe. And from the sound of things, he's pretty well fed up with Hamilton.
There's no way any of us can take his words into account without thinking of Hamilton's contract situation. In this case, the overtones aren't all that subtle.
Way back in the middle of May, all signs pointed towards the Rangers having a hard time being able to retain Hamilton, who is in the final year of his contract with the club. Jeff Passan of Yahoo! Sports wrote after Hamilton's four-homer game in May that Matt Kemp's eight-year, $160 million deal with the Los Angeles Dodgers was a good template for Hamilton's situation. I also wrote that $20 million per year was a good starting point.
Even despite his prolonged slump, it's still possible that Hamilton will be able to get a deal worth an average of $20 million per year out on the open market. What's changed is that it now seems like the Rangers aren't that desperate to keep him, and Craig Calcaterra of Hardball Talk made a good point that Ryan may be trying to win Rangers fans over to his side of the fence well before he lets Hamilton walk this offseason.
And considering the way things are going, Ryan is out of reasons to break the bank to bring Hamilton back. The Rangers are a big-market team now, but they're not about to pay top dollar for a sometimes-brilliant slugger who is injury-prone and problematic off the field.
Making a big investment in Hamilton wouldn't be safe. In fact, it would be the exact opposite of safe.
There's one thing that can be said about Hamilton and Texas, though, and that's that Texas is still a good place for him. He knows that the Rangers went out on a limb when they traded for him back before the 2008 season, and he knows as well as anyone that the Rangers have been good to him during his four-plus seasons with the club. They've stood by him through thick and thin, and the partnership has produced some pretty great moments out on the field.
Even still, this doesn't mean that the Rangers have to be content with whatever they get from Hamilton. They have every right to demand nothing but the best from him. Right now, they're not getting the best from him, and that's clearly wearing on the man who runs the show.
Do you think Josh Hamilton will be with the Rangers in 2013?
Ryan's words come off as a wake-up call. He wants Hamilton to shape up and change his approach at the plate. Only then will the numbers start coming again, and only then will Hamilton see numbers that he likes on a contract offer.
If Hamilton doesn't shape up, Ryan and the Rangers' brass will have other options. The free-agent market is going to be crowded with outfielders this season, including names like Melky Cabrera, Nick Swisher, Michael Bourn, Shane Victorino and B.J. Upton. In addition, Justin Upton is likely to be available on the trade market.
If the Rangers don't want to re-sign Hamilton, they don't have to. They'll be able to move on without him.
So for this partnership to continue, the pressure is all on Hamilton.
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