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Anatomy of Josh Hamilton's April Mega-Slump

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Anatomy of Josh Hamilton's April Mega-Slump

When the Los Angeles Angels signed Josh Hamilton to a five-year, $125 million deal, they clearly figured that he wouldn't be as bad as he was in the last four-and-a-half months of 2012.

If so, well, technically they were right. Thus far in 2013, Hamilton hasn't been as bad as he was down the stretch last year for the Texas Rangers.

The truth is that he's been worse, and what's under the hood of his struggles is pretty ugly.

Through 17 games and 77 plate appearances, Hamilton is hitting .176/.247/.324 with two homers. For some perspective, he was hitting .408/.429/.789 with eight homers through his first 17 games last year, at which time he looked like a cross between Babe Ruth and Superman.

Per FanGraphs, Hamilton is striking out 29.9 percent of the time he comes to the plate, a rate that currently ranks him 13th among qualified hitters

That should sound familiar. Hamilton struck out in 25.5 percent of his plate appearances last year, a figure that ranked 14th in baseball. As early as it is in 2013, it's disconcerting that he hasn't gotten over his strikeout problem.

There were two things that stood out about Hamilton's approach at the plate last year. One was how impatient he was, and the other was how often he expanded the strike zone.

Here's a look at how often Hamilton swung at the first pitch (1stS%) and how often he swung at pitches outside the zone (O-Swing%) last year. I've included the league averages, which come courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com and Baseball Info Solutions via FanGraphs.

Stat Hamilton League
1stS% 48 27
O-Swing% 45.4 30.8

You can see that Hamilton swung at the first pitch almost twice as often as the rest of the league and that he swung at pitches outside the strike zone far more often than your average hitter. In fact, his 45.4 O-Swing% was the highest in baseball last year.

So how's Hamilton doing on these two fronts in 2013?

About the same. Here's a look.

Stat Hamilton League
1stS% 46 26
O-Swing% 45.1 28.9

Once again, you can see that Hamilton's first-pitch swing percentage is exceeding the league average by a mile. And since the league O-Swing% has dropped from where it was last year, he's expanding the zone even more often than your average hitter than he was last year.

What's worse is that Hamilton isn't giving himself many excuses to maintain this approach.

Hamilton actually got away with his first-pitch habits last year to the tune of a 1.181 OPS. But this year, he has just a .700 OPS when swinging at the first pitch. We're obviously talking about a very small sample size, but that's quite the drop.

As for swinging at pitches outside the strike zone, here's where I have to direct you over to Baseball Prospectus to take a look at some graphs that I can't re-post here.

What I want you to take a look at are graphs that show Hamilton's True Averages—a catch-all offensive stat scaled to batting average values—by hitting zones both inside and outside the strike zone.

This first graph shows that Hamilton had some hot True Average areas outside the strike zone last year, most notably on the inside. This second graph is for 2013, and it shows that: A) Hamilton hasn't found much success outside the strike zone thus far; and B) he really hasn't had many chances to do damage on the inside part of the plate.

Stephen Dunn/Getty Images
It's no wonder Josh Hamilton isn't looking so happy. He's not seeing many pitches in his happy zone.

Now head on over to TexasLeaguers.com and take a look at the pitches Hamilton has seen this year and where they've been concentrated. Notice how many of the pitches he's seen have gone to the outside part of the plate or just off the outside part of the plate. That goes to show that pitchers are well aware that going inside on Hamilton is not a good idea.

He's not giving them a reason to adjust, either. Head back over to Baseball Prospectus to check out Hamilton's swing rates for 2013 and you'll see an awful lot of red on the outside part of the plate and just off the outside part of the plate. He's offering at pitches that pitchers want him to offer at.

Of course, it's not just about where pitchers are pitching Hamilton. It's also about what they're throwing him, and that's where things get even more discouraging.

Between 2007 and 2011, Hamilton was among the best fastball hitters in the business. That's a reality reflected by the 2.37 wFB/C—the 2.37 runs above average he generated on fastballs for every 100 heaters he saw—he compiled in those five seasons. Only Albert Pujols did better.

Hamilton did pretty well against fastballs again in 2012, compiling a 1.79 wFB/C that ranked 13th among qualified hitters. However, the data from Baseball Info Solutions shows that he was fed fastballs less frequently than any other qualified hitter in the majors.

So far this year, it's the same story. Hamilton is hitting well against fastballs—both of his homers have come on fastballs, in fact—but he's only seeing heaters 44.0 percent of the time. In lieu of heaters, he's been getting a steady diet of changeups, curveballs and sliders.

These pitches are giving Hamilton big problems. Once again using "per 100 pitches" values, here are the ugly numbers.

Hamilton wasn't very productive against these three pitches to begin with. In 2013, they've been eating him up.

The slider has been a main weapon of left-handers against Hamilton. As TexasLeaguers.com can show, he's swung at quite a few outside sliders that lefties have offered him this season and whiffed on roughly half the ones he's swung at.

Video courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB's official YouTube account.

For an example of a lefty who exploited this weakness, consider Rangers starter Derek Holland. When Holland faced Hamilton earlier this month in Texas, three of the four pitches he threw him in his first at-bat were outside sliders. Hamilton whiffed at two of them, including strike three. 

Hamilton has also had issues against lefty curves. He hasn't seen many of them, but TexasLeaguers.com shows that he's only put one lefty curveball in play. It went for an out.

These issues help explain the mere .196 OPS Hamilton has against southpaws this season, and it goes to show that lefties have done their homework. As ESPN's Keith Law (Insider post) wrote in his free-agent rankings, Hamilton had "looked particularly vulnerable to lefties who can spin something away from him" in 2011 and 2012.

The changeup, not surprisingly, has been a main weapon of right-handers against Hamilton.

Head back over to TexasLeaguers.com, and you can see how many changeups from right-handers on the outside part of the plate Hamilton has offered at. In fact, he's really only let changeups from righties go when they've been way outside the strike zone.

You can also see he hasn't had a whole lot of success when he's put these changeups in play. He's only hit six righty changeups to the outfield, and only three of those have gone for hits. The other seven righty changeups he's put in play have stayed on the infield.

Knowing all this, I have to agree with what Mike DiGiovanna of the Los Angeles Times tweeted last week:

Want some good news, Angels fans?

Yes? Very well, then.

A couple weeks ago when the season was only a few days old, Dan Szymborski noted Hamilton's alarming swinging-strike percentage in a piece for ESPN Insider. It was 21.8 percent of the time.

Now Hamilton's swinging-strike percentage is down to 16.5 percent. That bodes well, and it also bodes well that, even though Hamilton is still racking up strikeouts, his overall contact percentage is up from where it was last season. 

Over or under 30 homers for Josh Hamilton this season?

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The kind of contact Hamilton is making is also encouraging. Per FanGraphs, his fly-ball rate is actually a little higher than it was last year. His HR/FB rate, however, is down at 10.0, which is way too low for him. It's going to come up, and warmer weather can obviously only help.

Despite the lingering bad habits, these are signs that Hamilton isn't totally out of whack at the plate. These things aren't much in light of his overall struggles, but they're things on which to hang some hope all the same.

Another reason to be hopeful: It's only April. A bad April doesn't necessarily herald a bad year.

For examples, see what Albert Pujols and Giancarlo Stanton did last year. Both of them were irrelevant in April and then proceeded to mash the rest of the year.

Hamilton obviously has some adjustments to make before he can follow in their footsteps, but somebody should remind him that there's no hurry. There's a lot of season left, and bad habits are a lot easier to solve than a lack of ability.

It's still too soon to say whether a lack of ability is what's really at the core of Hamilton's slide. If it is, the Angels are going to have a nasty albatross on their hands for the next few seasons.

 

Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.

 

If you want to talk baseball, hit me up on Twitter. 

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