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How Much Should the Angels Be Encouraged by Josh Hamilton's Turnaround?

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How Much Should the Angels Be Encouraged by Josh Hamilton's Turnaround?

The big story concerning Los Angeles Angels outfielder Josh Hamilton these days has to do with him dealing with a nagging ailment; a revelation that, given his history, should come as a surprise to absolutely nobody.

But then there's the story under the big story, one that might have Angels owner Arte Moreno and the rest of the powers that be in Anaheim resting a little easier at night.

Don't look now, but Hamilton has gone from being utterly hopeless at the plate to being, well, less hopeless.

If you haven't heard about the ailment, Hamilton told Alden Gonzalez of MLB.com that he's been sick with a sinus issue that's made him prone to dizziness and ballpark lights. Hence the reason he had to come out of Monday night's game against the Kansas City Royals a bit early.

"I'm just off," said the Angels' $125 million offseason prize. "However you want to write it, however you want to describe it -- I'm just off."

He put it a little differently when speaking to Bill Shaikin of the Los Angeles Times: "The equilibrium wasn't quite where it needed to be."

I have to be honest. My initial reaction upon reading these comments was, "Here we go again." Complete with an eye-roll, of course. Not that I have a vendetta against Hamilton or anything, but he tends to invite such reactions when he speaks.

But then I noticed the funny part: Hamilton's recent numbers say he's really not that "off."

Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports
Swinging a hot bat? No. But certainly swinging a better bat.

Hamilton told Gonzalez that he began feeling the symptoms of his latest ailment on May 5. In nine games and 37 plate appearances since then, Hamilton is a .242/.324/.636 hitter with a .961 OPS and three homers.

Not exactly an epic hot streak, but certainly not bad seeing as how Hamilton was a .207/.250/.289 hitter with a .539 OPS and two homers through his first 30 games and 132 plate appearances. 

You might be thinking that the small sample size caveat applies. Yes it does, and I should also acknowledge that two of Hamilton's last three homers came against the Houston Astros, who have surrendered more homers than any other team in the league by a significant margin.

Courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB.com

Though it certainly passed the eye test with an estimated distance of 439 feet, Hamilton's latest homer on Tuesday night came against Jeremy Guthrie, whose repertoire has long included a top-notch gopherball.

So you're perfectly welcome to shout, "Fluke!" Either that or mumble, "Meh..." 

But me? I'm willing to stray into benefit of the doubt territory, as Hamilton's outburst is as much a product of his own adjustments as it is a product of luck. 

Two things have happened with Hamilton in the last couple of weeks. One is that he's batting lower in the order, taking up a residence in the No. 5 spot instead of the No. 3 spot. Perhaps he's putting less pressure on himself now, which could be the explanation for the second thing:

His approach at the plate has gotten better. 

Here's a comparison of Hamilton's plate discipline data from April and his plate discipline data from May, with the numbers courtesy of Baseball Info Solutions by way of FanGraphs:

Month O-Swing% Z-Swing% Swing% O-Contact% Z-Contact% Contact% SwStr%
 April  44.9 82.0 60.4  54.4  81.3  69.7  18.2
 May  37.2  77.1  54.3  51.4  81.5  69.7  15.5

If this is gibberish to you, it's pretty much self-explanatory once you know that "O-" refers to things done on pitches outside the strike zone and that "Z-" refers to things done on pitches inside the strike zone.

What you see here is a portrait of a hitter who has gotten less aggressive in the last couple weeks. Hamilton's contact rate hasn't budged, but he's taking fewer hacks overall and far fewer hacks on pitches outside the strike zone. 

Which is good, because that wasn't just Hamilton's biggest weakness in April. It was his biggest weakness in 2012 as well, as he led all hitters with a 45.4 O-Swing%. He picked up where he left off, but now he's trending in another direction.

Elsewhere, the decrease in Hamilton's swinging-strike percentage has helped him cut down on his strikeouts. There actually haven't been many of those lately, as he's struck out in about 19 percent of his plate appearances since May 5, as opposed to 28 percent of his plate appearances before May 5.

The small sample size caveat certainly still applies, but I'm gladly taking this data if I'm the Angels. After what happened in April, the fact that Hamilton has gotten more focused at the plate this month is encouraging.

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
Taylor wanted Hamilton to be more like Tony Romo. Just sayin'.

It's even more encouraging that this is going on while Hamilton is dealing with one of his nagging health issues. He caught hell, most notably from Jean-Jacques Taylor of ESPNDallas.com, for his inability to play through nagging health issues last year, and the last four-and-a-half months of the season in general served to portray Hamilton as a wimp.

But what Hamilton has been doing recently is not entirely unprecedented. He hasn't played well through every ache, pain or ailment he's dealt with throughout his career, but it's easy to forget the times he did play well through various issues.

Per his injury database on Baseball Prospectus, Hamilton dealt with a bout of dizziness in early August of 2008. He posted a 1.147 OPS and hit a couple homers in his first six games that month.

In 2011, Texas Rangers manager Ron Washington was singing Hamilton's praises for playing through the final month of the season and the playoffs with a sports hernia. He was less effective in the postseason after posting a .905 OPS in September, but you'll recall that he hit what could have been a World Series-winning homer in Game 6 against the St. Louis Cardinals.

Late last May, Hamilton battled an illness that was bad enough to sideline him for one game. He posted a 1.113 OPS and hit three homers in the last seven games he played that month.

Now here's Hamilton again, hitting the best he has all season despite the fact his equilibrium isn't where it should be. Some of that's due to bad pitching, and some of it's due to improvements he's made.

If I'm the Angels, I'm thinking things could be a lot worse.

In April, it looked like the Angels had made a horrible investment that they were going to be stuck with for another four years after this one. All the while, they had to know that it was just a matter of time before Hamilton started dealing with one of those issues that seemingly only he ever has to deal with. When it did, odds were their investment was going to look even worse.

Not so much. Hamilton is dealing with one of his Hamilton-y health issues, but it's only robbed him of a couple innings' worth of action and it's happening at a time when he's starting to look more like himself.

The whole small sample size thing should keep the Angels from dreaming too big, but this is the sliver of hope that they desperately needed Hamilton to show them.

 

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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