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Can the Angels Still Contend If Josh Hamilton Can't Stay Healthy in 2014?

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Can the Angels Still Contend If Josh Hamilton Can't Stay Healthy in 2014?
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The 2014 baseball calendar isn't even into March yet, and the "Oh no!" sirens are already flashing in Josh Hamilton's neck of the woods.

Or maybe calf of the woods is more appropriate given the circumstances.

On Tuesday, Billy Shaikin of the Los Angeles Times reported that Hamilton strained his left calf during a baserunning drill, and that it "could be weeks" before he's ready to rejoin the Los Angeles Angels' lineup.

On Wednesday, Shaikin heard it straight from Angels skipper Mike Scioscia. He's expecting that Hamilton will miss "a minimum of a couple of weeks." 

"We'll see when we get there," Scioscia said of Hamilton's outlook for Opening Day (March 31). "We're optimistic he will be."

Let's get this out there in BIG BOLD LETTERS: I'm not here to whip everyone up into a panic. Hamilton has a little over a month to heal before the Angels start their 2014 season against the Seattle Mariners on March 31, and his injury isn't exactly of the life-threatening variety. 

But still...there is doubt. Here's this from Bleacher Report's Will Carroll:

Hamilton is dealing with an injury that could linger if he and the Angels aren't careful, but there's also the reality that Hamilton's reputation for being prone to nagging injuries precedes itself. Given both his age (33 in May) and his past history of substance abuse, he's probably not going to morph into an iron man.

So while hoping for the best is warranted, so is planning for the worst. If Hamilton's calf injury ends up being a precursor to an injury-marred 2014 season, how screwed will the Angels be?

More screwed than you might think, actually.

Courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB.com.

You can be forgiven if you look at what Hamilton did in 2013 and figure that losing him for some, most or all of 2014 would be no big loss. The guy may have a superstar contract, but he didn't put up superstar numbers last year. He slashed just .250/.307/.432 with, according to FanGraphs, a 104 wRC+. 

However, this is a situation that's not as bad as it looks on the surface. If we do this...

Josh Hamilton's 2013 Splits and 2014 Steamer Projections
Split BB% K% AVG OBP ISO wOBA wRC+ WAR
1st Half 2013 6.9 25.3 .224 .283 .189 .302 92 0.6
2nd Half 2013 8.0 24.1 .287 .341 .173 .344 122 1.3
Steamer 2014 7.4 24.8 .263 .327 .203 .340 119 2.5

FanGraphs

Hamilton's biggest struggles in 2013 came in the first half. The only area where he didn't improve in the second half was in his power production, and Steamer's projections saw him continuing on down that path in 2014 (except with more power).

This is easy enough to buy into, as Hamilton's second-half surge wasn't entirely the product of good luck. He was doing some things better when it came to his plate approach:

Josh Hamilton's 2013 Plate Approach
Half O-Swing% Z-Swing% Swing% O-Contact% Z-Contact% Contact% SwStr%
1st 40.6 78.5 55.8 54.2 81.3 69.5 16.8
2nd 42.0 79.7 56.0 59.3 82.2 71.4 15.3

FanGraphs

It's not a good look that Hamilton swung at more pitches outside of the strike zone than he had in the first half, but it is a good look that he made more contact on the pitches he chased. It's also a good look that he was more aggressive in the strike zone, and that it paid off with additional contact.

So Hamilton did figure some things out down the stretch last year. He also figured out this winter that he didn't help himself by playing lighter in 2013. After taking weight off for his first season with the Angels, it was reported in January that he put weight back on for 2014.

In light of these things, a healthy Hamilton living up to a projection of a 119 wRC+ in 2014 sounds reasonable enough. And while that still wouldn't be superstar-caliber production, a wRC+ like that in 2013 would have tied for 20th among qualified outfielders. It's not a number to disregard.

If there's a bright side for the Angels, it's that they're more equipped to withstand Hamilton being out for a while than they would have been last year. Notably, they should have more left-handed power.

For one, Kole Calhoun is slated for everyday duty in right field. He posted a respectable .179 ISO and 126 wRC+ in limited action in 2013, and Steamer sees him posting a .174 ISO and 122 wRC+ in full-time action in 2014. Good stuff there.

For two, the Angels will have Raul Ibanez serving regularly at DH, with projections for a .176 ISO and a 100 wRC+. And while expecting Ibanez to repeat his 2013 performance is asking a lot, those figures do look conservative when compared with the .244 ISO and 117 wRC+ he put up last year.

The not-so-bright side is that losing Hamilton for a spell would require the Angels to give J.B. Shuck regular playing time in his place in left field. In all likelihood, that would be a significant step back.

Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press
Steamer project Shuck for a 0.4 WAR in 2014.

Shuck is a well-below-average power source, and he isn't good enough at getting on base to make up for it. He had a 96 wRC+ in 2013 and is projected for another 96 wRC+ in 2014.

His defense also isn't much of a saving grace. Shuck was average in left field last year, according to Defensive Runs Saved, and he was below average, according to Ultimate Zone Rating. Hamilton, by comparison, was above average in left field in the eyes of both metrics in 2013. He had two Defensive Runs Saved and a 3.8 UZR.

Point being: Switching out Hamilton for Shuck would definitely hurt the Angels offense, and the tradeoff wouldn't necessarily be an improved defense. Health troubles for Hamilton, therefore, would put quite a bit of additional pressure on the Angels pitching staff.

And that's not a happy prospect. Even despite some solid additions, the Angels pitching staff is projected for only 11.9 WAR in 2014, 21st out of 30 teams. Even if a few things bounce right, we're not looking at a staff that has serious upside.

It's hard to say for certain how much watching Hamilton stagger through an injury-marred season would cost the Angels. But between their lack of a solid replacement for him and the general weakness of their pitching staff, a good guess would be a couple of wins. Two. Three. Maybe four. Something like that.

That might not sound like a huge blow at first. But consider the depth of the AL West around the Angels.

The Oakland A's and Texas Rangers are absolutely playoff contenders. The Seattle Mariners will at least be relevant after signing Robinson Cano and adding Corey Hart and Logan Morrison. The Houston Astros added some much-needed talent when they brought in Dexter Fowler and Scott Feldman.

As of now, Baseball Prospectus' PECOTA-based projections have the AL West being the only division in MLB with four teams that win at least 83 games. Given that, a couple of extra losses in the AL West could easily be the difference between the postseason and, well, golf.

Again, don't panic. Since the sky is staying put for now, this is all hypothetical until further notice.

Still, a worry (or two) is in order. You just never know with Hamilton, and the Angels will only be able to go so far if he can't stay healthy.

 

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

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