So here comes October, the Los Angeles Angels are getting nearly straight A's while producing the majors' best record and yet...what are we to make of that periodic coughing and sputtering sound coming from Josh Hamilton's part of the engine?
A better question: What does Josh Hamilton make of Josh Hamilton right now?
"I just have to remind myself before every at-bat to go up there and cut it loose," he told Bleacher Report last weekend. "Not think about, 'Oh, he might throw me this pitch here.'"
His current .416 slugging percentage is the worst of his career. In 27 games in the month of August, he hit .222 with a .286 on-base percentage and 31 whiffs in 99 at-bats.
He was so lost that on Aug. 17, he finally asked for a day off. Manager Mike Scioscia responded by giving him two.
"I'm a guy," says Hamilton, "who's always [believed] it doesn’t matter what the count is. Look fastball and then react off of the other stuff. Look [for pitches] away, react [to pitches] in, all those basic principles that I've always lived by, do it.
"And getting back in the routine of going up there every time with that approach, no matter what the situation is."
Always, through eight seasons now, he has been high-maintenance. That isn't necessarily a bad thing, just that Joshua Holt Hamilton is more complicated than others. Sometimes when he falls off the wall, it takes all the king's horses and all the king's men to put him back together again.
"High-maintenance," Angels batting coach Don Baylor repeats, nodding. "Tell me what players are not, really, especially when their swing is broken?"
At home, Hamilton has not exactly been, well, at home: All 10 of his homers this year have come on the road. He hasn't homered in Angel Stadium since Aug. 18, 2013. And over his past 24 home games, he’s hitting .182 (compared to .299 over his past 25 road games entering Wednesday's contest in Houston).
Voices sometimes find their way inside of his head—especially when he's not hitting—and well-meaning colleagues begin soft-tossing tips his way.
"I think players who are coachable, who respect guys who have been around the game, coaches and players, are going to listen to guys like that," he says. "And then you've got guys who don't care what anybody says, and they go out and do what they need to do.
"I can fall into the first category. Sometimes you've got to put that aside and say, 'All right,' [so] you listen, but then you know what you've got to do."
Sometimes what a guy's gotta do is tune out others, even if he does try to be the kind of guy who's coachable.
But then, with Hamilton, it's always been something.
Remember how he explained away one of his Texas-sized Rangers slumps by revealing that he had quit smokeless tobacco cold turkey? That was in 2012, as Texas gagged the AL West to Oakland, when he also missed five games down the stretch for the Rangers with blurred vision. That one was diagnosed, the Rangers said, as an eye condition in which the corneas dried out from too much caffeine.
Something had to replace the tobacco.
Two years prior, he won the American League Most Valuable Player Award.
No, you've never been able to be completely sure of what you're going to get with Hamilton. From his incredibly inspirational comeback from substance abuse and addiction issues to the MVP, from his white-hot streaks at the plate to his periodic need to substitute a nap in place of batting practice, this is one unique case study of a player who only knows one speed, and that's all-out.
Which, of course, sometimes has been detrimental, such as with his career-long habit of sliding head-first. At 6'4", 240 pounds, that's a lot of beef jarring those bones and joints during dives, and that's why he missed 48 games earlier this season with torn ligaments in his left thumb.
"He was on his way to having an MVP-type season when he got hurt," Baylor notes.
True enough...if you're moved to place the first eight games of a season in that department. Through those eight games, Hamilton was sizzling at .444/.545/.741 with two homers and six RBI. Then, crunch! The result has been 87 games in total, hitting .262 with 10 homers and 44 RBI.
He is 33 now, with fewer days in the front of the horse than in the back of the cart. How much longer will he be able to gallop unbridled? His body has been wracked over the years with, among other things, wrist, rib cage, hamstring, arm and thumb injuries. He's landed on the disabled list because of gastroenteritis and a sports hernia.
The Angels lured him with a five-year, $125 million offer in December 2012, because they went far beyond the financial line the Rangers drew with Hamilton.
Two years later, other than in very small flashes, Hamilton has been nowhere close to the MVP-caliber player he once was. He has been susceptible both to Angel Stadium and breaking pitches.
"Anybody who throws him a fastball should be fined $1,000," one scout says.
Nevertheless, the mind still whirs at the prospect of all the things he could do. So Scioscia continues to slot him fourth in the order, and maybe at the very least, while Hamilton searches for a groove, No. 2 hitter Mike Trout (already with a career-high 31 homers) and No. 3 hitter Albert Pujols see better pitches.
"Guys with toe taps (like Hamilton does at the plate), they have more trouble than most people," Baylor says.
Rhythm. Always with Hamilton, there is that, too. So, during that second consecutive day off last month, in Boston on Aug. 18, Baylor went old school and dragged out a batting tee.
"His strength is there," Baylor says. "You don't hit a ball off a tee out of the park in most places."
Hamilton did during early work in Fenway Park.
"We get him there, it's confidence after that," Baylor says. "He gets that confidence, we're rolling as a team because he is such a phenomenal player.
"I told him, 'Confidence. You're one of the top 10 players in all of baseball, not just in the American League.'"
Hamilton really was. Now the Angels are rolling, but can Hamilton again roll with them?
Indications are, he's gathering steam: Over his past 13 games, Hamilton has two homers, four doubles and nine RBI.
"You know, you go through these things and you think mechanical this, my hands there, I've got to start here," Hamilton says. "And you get to a point where it's like, OK, obviously searching and working on things mechanical didn't really get it done. So what's really worked in the past? And that's just get up there, see it and hit it."
That's the plan for these final few weeks, he promises. Grip it and rip it.
It seems a bit premature yet to call this the twilight of Hamilton's career. At least, as long as he continues actively chasing the ghost of his former MVP self.
"I feel like I've had glimpses of it at times," he says. "But the consistency of it hasn't been there for reasons I told you.
"Going out and playing. That's the approach I'm going to have this last month. See the ball, hit the ball, don't overthink things, and just play."
Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report. He has over two decades of experience covering MLB, including 14 years as a national baseball columnist at CBSSports.com.
Follow Scott on Twitter and talk baseball @ScottMillerBbl.
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