Is Josh Hamilton Already Finished as a Superstar in MLB?

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Is Josh Hamilton Already Finished as a Superstar in MLB?

Less than three years ago, Sports Illustrated's Tom Verducci labeled Josh Hamilton as the best baseball player on the planet.

On Wednesday night, a day after one of the worst 0-for-5 games a hitter can have, Los Angeles Angels manager Mike Scioscia dropped Hamilton to seventh in the batting order.

The $125 million-man is a shell of the player he was three seasons ago, leaving the Angels to wonder if they'll receive any value for the investment they made in his bat last winter.

While it's very possible Hamilton recovers from his malaise to become a productive outfielder again this summer or next year, expecting superstar-level production is foolhardy.

Hamilton is in steep decline, with the evidence mounting against his return to MVP levels by the inning.

For the season, the 2010 AL MVP has posted a .210/.266/.384/.650 line, continuing a trend in which his batting average has tumbled precipitously in every season since 2010. From .359 to .298 to .285 to .210, Hamilton has gone from one of the most consistently dangerous hitters to an almost automatic out.

It's mind-boggling to re-read Verducci's piece that compares Hamilton to Mickey Mantle in his prime, factoring in power, defense, speed and baserunning. Without opening up a can of worms among new-school and old-school fans, the article shapes the WAR values of Hamilton compared to the best of Mantle.

In other words, they impacted the game in every way, on an elite level.

A quick look at the qualified WAR leaders among outfielders this season is mortifying to Hamilton supporters. Heading into play on Thursday, his WAR is an even 0.0, according to Fangraphs. That figure ranks 56th of 61 regular outfielders in the sport, behind luminaries such as Alejandro De Aza, Drew Stubbs and Andy Dirks.

Of course, great players can have down years only to recover to post superstar-level numbers as they age. While it's possible Hamilton can achieve that feat, the numbers don't support a resurgence.

Hamilton looks like a hitter guessing at the plate, putting fewer balls into play and seeing meek results when he actually makes contact.

Over the last two seasons, especially the last calender year, the numbers aren't pretty for Hamilton, but the process of how he's achieved those stats is even starker.

With a strikeout rate of over 25 percent in both 2012 and 2013, the Angels right fielder is becoming a whiff machine. That, in itself, wouldn't be such a big issue if the balls he did hit were struck with the authority that was the norm for his at-bats in the past.

Heading into this season, Hamilton had never posted a BABIP (batting average on balls in play) under .300. In other words, when he made contact, it became a hit at a higher rate than the average batter. This was due to a good line drive rate and power to send the ball to the fences.

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This season, his BABIP is .247. To be fair, some of that may be poor luck that will lead to better numbers in the second half of the season, but most of it looks like a hitter who doesn't strike the ball with the authority we're used to seeing from a superstar.

Hamilton is hitting fewer line drives and more ground balls than at any point of his major league career, but the most worrisome statistic may be his IFFB (infield fly ball percentage)—or, to be blunt, how many times he lifts a lazy pop-up that doesn't even reach the outfield.

With a 9.1 IFFB, nearly 10 percent of the balls Hamilton hits have no chance of producing. Forget home runs and doubles, the former MVP isn't even providing his team productive outs.

Fans can dissect the swing, statistics, contract and mentality of Hamilton all season long, but the likely reason for his decline is age and attrition. While the former star is only 32, it's quite clear that his body went through rigors that most professional athletes don't endure.

If the Angels are lucky, they'll get a better Hamilton in the second half of the season. If they are not, he'll be more of an albatross as the years go on.

 

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