Playing Fact or Fiction with Josh Hamilton's White-Hot Start

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Playing Fact or Fiction with Josh Hamilton's White-Hot Start
Eric Christian Smith
After a disappointing first season with the Angels, Josh Hamilton is off to a great start in 2014.

This is the Josh Hamilton the Los Angeles Angels thought they were getting. Alas, after paying the five-time All-Star $125 million over five years in December 2012, the 32-year-old's start to 2013 was as cold as his 2014 beginning has been hot.

In his first month as an Angel, Hamilton batted a ghastly .204/.252/.296 on his way to hitting just .250/.307/.432 with 73 runs scored, 21 home runs and 79 RBI, all of which were career worsts for seasons in which Hamilton played at least 100 games.

This April, though, the 2010 AL MVP has been the exact opposite, with 12 hits in his first 24 at-bats (.500, if you couldn't figure that out), along with a pair of homers and doubles apiece. All of which earned Hamilton a share of the AL player of the week, per Joey Nowak of MLB.com.

"(Hamilton is) obviously a different player than he was last year," Angels manager Mike Scioscia said via Nowak's story. "He's back to his playing weight (about 240 pounds). He has a comfort level in the box that started to come together the second half of last season but never really materialized the way it had before in his last couple years in Texas. Right now, we are seeing it. Hopefully, he's in a better place in the batter's box now and will maintain it for long stretches."

That would be big for both the Angels, who once again have postseason aspirations, and Hamilton, who endured a calf strain that cost him a few weeks during spring training before making it back to hit .333/.378/.606 in March. Both sides want a redo on 2013, and a quick start is the best way to go about that.

Hamilton attributes his strong showing through the first seven games of the season to getting back his rhythm and timing in the batter's box, according to Alden Gonzalez of MLB.com. "Hitting is rhythm and timing," the outfielder told Gonzalez. "If one is out of sync, you are going to struggle."

With Hamilton not struggling at the outset of his second year in Los Angeles, it's time to make some general statements about his performance so far and play a little Fact or Fiction with each.

 

Statement No. 1: Josh Hamilton's power is back.

For a hitter like Hamilton, who sports a .532 career slugging percentage, power is paramount. That wasn't the case in 2013, especially early on.

A year ago, Hamilton managed a measly .296 SLG and .548 OPS before May. From there, his power fluctuated some, but he actually put up a solid .464 SLG and .783 OPS after April. That's not quite the Hamilton of old, but it indicates just how much his awful beginning drowned out the progress he made over the rest of the year.

To wit, Hamilton hit .329 with a .518 SLG and .909 OPS over his final 45 games from mid-August until the end of the year.

Now that he's in his age-33 campaign, it's only natural for Hamilton to experience some decline in his performance. Thing is, his last April was still more of an outlier than a clear indication that Hamilton's days as a dangerous hitter were done.

Josh Hamilton: Every-Other-Year Slugger
SEASON HR RBI
2008 32 130
2009 10 54
2010 32 100
2011 25 94
2012 43 128
2013 21 79

Baseball Reference

Is he going to return to his 30-plus-homer ways from his peak seasons? It's a possibility. And even though it's more of a cute observation than anything else, there is this: Since 2008, Hamilton has topped 30 homers and 100 RBI every other year, and 2014 is one of those other years.

Is Hamilton's power back? Seems so. In fact, one could make a claim that it was here all along and only went hibernating for a month or two early in 2013.

Verdict: Fact

 

Statement No. 2: Josh Hamilton's plate discipline is improving.

For Hamilton to sustain this early-season success, the two keys are going to be his health and his plate discipline, both of which have been concerns during his career. While the former is hard to control to an extent, the latter—when and when not to swing—is something that is well within a player's ability to maintain.

Hamilton has always qualified as a free swinger, as proven by his 56.1 percent swing percentage, which is the percentage of pitches a batter goes after, and he ranks among the top 10 highest in the sport since 2007, his first year.

To start 2014, though, Hamilton has been a wee bit more selective. His swing percentage is at 46.3 percent, which would be a career low by far. Here's a look at Hamilton's other plate-discipline metrics so far:

Josh Hamilton's Swing Percentages (2010-14)
SEASON SWING % Z-SWING% O-SWING %
2010 55.3 % 80.7 % 37.3 %
2011 57.1 % 81.7 % 41.0 %
2012 58.9 % 84.9 % 45.4 %
2013 55.9 % 79.0 % 41.2 %
2014 46.3 % 83.3 % 29.2 %

FanGraphs

That table basically shows that Hamilton has been swinging at fewer pitches overall (Swing%) while also doing a better job of swinging at pitches in the strike zone (Z-Swing%) after a dip in 2013 and swinging at pitches outside the zone (O-Swing%) at a much better rate than in recent seasons.

Add it all up, and it's not surprising that Hamilton already has drawn six walks and has whiffed only six times in his first 30 plate appearances. By comparison, in his first year with the Angels, Hamilton had only three walks against 11 strikeouts through his first 30 trips.

A sample size of 30 PA is too small to draw any conclusions about Hamilton's plate discipline this year, or any player's for that matter. Studies have shown that a player's strikeout rate tends to stabilize around plate appearance No. 60, while his walk rate takes about twice as long.

If that holds true with Hamilton, then he'll need to continue with his current approach through the rest of April before we really buy in. And even then, this is a hitter who always will have an aggressive mentality and some swing-and-miss to his game.

Verdict: Fact (for now)

 

Statement No. 3: Thanks in part to Josh Hamilton's early success, the Angels can avoid a third straight disappointing season.

It's all about April for the Angels, who have been underwhelming in the face of lofty expectations the past two years despite a ton of talent on the roster.

It's too early to put much weight on the Angel's 3-4 start following two series against fellow AL West clubs, the Seattle Mariners and Houston Astros, but if any team in baseball needs to avoid a poor first month, it's the Halos.

Here's why. After April 2013, the club was just 9-17, and in April 2012, they went 8-15. From May on, though, they've been much, much better the past two seasons, going 69-67 last year and 81-58 in '12.

Ted S. Warren
The Angels should benefit from injuries to their fellow AL West rivals, like Jarrod Parker of the Oakland Athletics.

The West is wide open at the moment, due to injuries that have the two preseason favorites to fight for the division crown more than a little short-handed: The Oakland Athletics are without Jarrod Parker after Tommy John surgery, while A.J. Griffin remains sidelined with elbow tendinitis; and the Texas Rangers lost Derek Holland for half the season after offseason knee surgery and Jurickson Profar with a shoulder injury suffered late in spring training that will cost him at least a couple months.

The Angels cannot afford to miss the opportunity that those injuries—as well as Hamilton's hot start—is presenting. The rest of the team has to get on board with Hamilton and put together a strong opening month. After all, they've shown they can play well once the calendar flips to May.

Verdict: Fact

While the expectation shouldn't be for Hamilton to regain his MVP form, he certainly should bounce back from a disappointing 2013. Ultimately, if that also helps the Angels do the same, then there's a good chance they'll be playing in October for the first time since 2009. That's one final fact Hamilton and the Angels would like to change.

 

Statistics come from Baseball Reference and FanGraphs, except where otherwise noted.

To talk baseball or fantasy baseball, check in with me on Twitter: @JayCat11

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