Don't look now, but Josh Hamilton and the Los Angeles Angels are kind of hot at the moment.
Actually, my bad. Please do look now, because this is something that we have to talk about.
The Angels have played 25 games since June 12. They've won 17 of those, which is a .680 winning percentage. And that's a nice number for them to look at, because their winning percentage in their previous 65 games was .415.
Hamilton, meanwhile, has been a primary contributor to the more recent hotness of the Angels' overall hotness. In 14 games since June 25, he's hitting .346/.426/.654 with four home runs. Numbers like those call to mind the numbers he was putting up early last year, which is another good thing for the Angels to feel all good about.
But can Hamilton sustain it? For that matter, can the Angels?
Good questions. Put on your discussion hats and follow me this way.
Can Hamilton Sustain It?
You might be skeptical of the little run Hamilton is on.
After all, this is a guy who hit .251/.325/.492 from the middle of May on last year, and who was hitting .207/.262/.378 in his first 72 games this year before warmth-breathing fairies breathed some warmth into his bat.
And the fact is that, no, Hamilton is very unlikely to have a 1.080 OPS for the rest of the season. We have to be fair here, and expecting him to keep that up is unfair.
We know that in part because his hot stretch has been built on the back of a .400 BABIP. Hamilton did have a .390 BABIP a couple of years ago in 2010 when he was hitting everything on the screws, but he had a .320 BABIP last year and has a .328 BABIP for his career.
Based on these numbers, the hits presumably won't keep falling at the rate they've been falling for him over the last couple of weeks.
Hamilton's hot stretch, however, is not a total mirage. He's not hot by accident. He's hot because he's figured things out.
Hamilton has found his lost power, for one. He had a .171 ISO before he got hot, and he has a .306 ISO during his hot stretch. An ISO of .300 is elite territory, but it's hardly beyond the realm of possibility that Hamilton could maintain a seat in this realm for the rest of the year. He's always had pop, and he's coming off a year in which he had a career-high .292 ISO despite all of the issues.
Also, the fact that Hamilton is hitting balls hard now looks like the product of a much-improved approach at the plate. It shows up just from looking at his strikeout and walk rates.
Before June 25, Hamilton struck out 25.2 percent of the time and walked only 6.29 percent of the time. Since June 25, he's struck out 23.0 percent of the time and walked 11.5 percent of the time.
How do you get numbers like those?
Well, it helps to stop hacking at everything in sight, and Hamilton has been doing that. FanGraphs has his swing rate in the past 30 days at 52.9 percent. That's lower than his season mark of 55.8 percent and much lower than his 2012 mark of 58.9 percent.
Even more significant are the types of pitches Hamilton is laying off.
If you watched Hamilton earlier this season, you probably saw what I saw: a guy who could neither lay off nor hit off-speed stuff. All pitchers had to do was throwing something with some spin at him, and he would be rendered as dangerous as a dormouse.
But recently? Not so much.
Using data from TexasLeaguers.com, we can see that Hamilton is laying off the stuff he couldn't lay off before:
|Span||Slider Swing%||Curveball Swing%||Changeup Swing%|
What this tells me is that Hamilton has reestablished the connection between his brain and his bat-swinging gears and rotors. He had to know all along that pitchers were trying to and, indeed, actually beating him with off-speed stuff. He just couldn't adjust, but he has since adjusted.
We can also see here that Hamilton has generally done a good job of staying in the zone when he has chosen to swing at off-speed stuff:
So there's that, and here's a video in which Hamilton illustrates the point by crushing an off-speed offering from Edward Mujica.
Hamilton was struggling earlier in the season because his approach was about as out of whack as an approach can be. Now his approach is very much in whack, and he's reaping the benefits by whacking the ball.
Hamilton sustaining his hot streak, or some kind of hot streak, for the rest of the season hinges on him sustaining this approach. If he can, then he's going to be the productive hitter that Arte Moreno thought he was buying over the winter.
Now then, how about the rest of the team?
Can the Angels Sustain It?
The secret to winning one game is scoring more runs than you allow. The key to winning a bunch of games is to score a lot more runs than you allow.
Simple stuff, really, and the Angels can tell you all about it.
Before June 12, the Angels scored 4.35 runs per game and allowed 4.72 runs per game. That qualifies as "not very good" by most standards, so it's no surprise that the Angels had a "not very good" record.
But since June 12: 5.64 runs scored per game and 4.36 runs allowed per game. More like it, don't you think?
Now, 5.64 runs per game is too high to sustain for very long. That number doesn't scream "fluke!" as much as, say, six or seven runs per game, but nobody in baseball is averaging as many as 5.5 runs per game—and the American League average is only 4.43 runs per game.
However, the one thing we were all saying about the Angels offense before the season was that it was going to be a good one because it had Hamilton, Albert Pujols and Mike Trout. If the three of them hit, the Angels were going to score a lot of runs.
Well, Trout has been awesome all year, Hamilton is finally hitting and Pujols has a respectable .840 OPS over the last month. In other words, the Angels offense is finally what it was supposed to be.
Pujols' health makes it hard to count on him maintaining all season long. But we know Trout is legit, and we're operating under the assumption that Hamilton has solved his approach issues.
If the two of them keep it up and the Angels get varying degrees of production from Pujols, Howie Kendrick and Mark Trumbo the rest of the year, it's really not hard to imagine their offense adhering to the five runs per game margin the rest of the season.
The Angels should be good on that end of the equation. It's the other end that represents the tricky part.
According to FanGraphs, Angels pitchers have a 3.85 ERA over the past month. That's not great, as it only ranks 15th in baseball in that span, but it certainly looks good next to the 4.24 ERA Angels pitchers have racked up for the whole year.
The bullpen deserves much of the credit. Angels relievers have a 3.12 ERA over the past month and have blown only one save.
That's largely Ernesto Frieri's doing, as he's been downright absurd over that span with a 15.80 K/9 and a 1.98 BB/9. That walk rate reeks of unsustainability given that Frieri's career BB/9 is 4.58, but he's also pounding the zone better than ever with a Zone% of 53.4 over the past month. His career mark is 47.4, so it's fair to wonder if something's clicked for him.
If something has, that's good news for the Angels.
They can't have Frieri doing what he did last August, when he suddenly lost his stuff and contributed to a bullpen nightmare that put a huge dent in the Angels' postseason chances. Frieri's pitching right now like a guy who's going to avoid another spell like that, and that's a good thing because having that rock at the end of the bullpen is always, well, good.
But really, it's the starters who make for the key here.
Over the past month, Angels starters have a merely decent 4.27 ERA. But that's misleading, as it's inflated by horrid work from Jerome Williams and a couple of bad starts from Tommy Hanson. The rest of the guys have been solid, particularly Jered Weaver and C.J. Wilson.
Weaver has a 3.03 ERA in his past five starts and has allowed only two earned runs in his last 20.2 innings. Wilson has a 2.60 ERA since the beginning of June. Basically, he and Weaver have been the effective one-two punch the Angels were hoping they would be.
Weaver has been helped by extra velocity. According to Brooks Baseball, he was averaging 87.19 miles per hour with his heater before June 27. In three starts since then, he's been at 88.01 miles per hour. That's not a small gain, and it's encouraging seeing as how Weaver's fastball was more like a moderately quick ball earlier in the season.
As for Wilson, however, don't be fooled.
The key to Wilson's success in his past eight starts is his walk rate. He had a 4.23 BB/9 before June, and has a 2.60 BB/9 since June. Be wary of that, as he's traditionally been a 4.00ish BB/9 guy as a starter, and his walk rate hasn't declined because he's done a better job of putting pitches in the strike zone.
For the season, Wilson's Zone% is 44.1. In the past 30 days, it's 43.2. That gives his lower walk rate a mirage-ish quality, which tells me he's probably going to revert back to being himself very soon. And when Wilson is himself, he can be infuriating to watch.
Speaking of infuriating to watch, there's Joe Blanton.
He's been getting knocked around all season, and at this point I've given up believing the lies his FIP and xFIP have been telling about him being owed some good luck. The guy has mediocre stuff, and it speaks volumes that he hasn't posted a BABIP under .300 since 2009. He's hittable, plain and simple.
Tommy Hanson, meanwhile, was hard at work being something of a Blanton clone before he went on the disabled list with a forearm issue.
As expected, his velocity was on its way down for a third straight season, and his strikeout rate also took another turn for the worse. He's a fly-ball pitcher who can't miss bats at this point, and that's not the kind of guy any team wants to put too much faith in.
With Wilson likely a ticking time bomb, Blanton all Blanton-y and Hanson all Hanson-y, what the Angels really need is for Jason Vargas to come back strong and pick up where he left off before he went on the disabled list with a blood clot. He was having a very strong season with a 3.65 ERA, and a 3.05 ERA in 11 starts since the third week of April.
If the Angels can get Weaver and Vargas making consistent starts together for what will feel like the first time all season, then they're going to be able to rely on at least two guys. Wilson will be a wild card, but he's certainly a better No. 3 starter than Blanton and Hanson.
If it all comes together, the Angels' rotation could be...decent.
So, let's add up all the pieces: an offense that should be pretty good in large part because of a pricey star player who should be pretty good, a bullpen with a ninth-inning rock and a decent rotation.
Not a recipe for a world-beater, that, but that does sound like the recipe all of us had in mind for the Angels before the season. Point being that they should be a good team from here to the end, if not necessarily a great team.
The bad news? That's that "good" baseball likely won't be enough to catch up to the Oakland A's and Texas Rangers if they continue to play as well as they've played in the second half.
The good news? That's that one or both of those teams could be overcome with injuries and/or other nasty things and make life much easier for the Angels.
The Angels won't stay scorching hot forever, but they have a shot to save their season so long as they stay warm.
Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.
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