As far as storylines go, we could not have had two more different ends of the spectrum when it came to Josh Hamilton's 2008 and 2009 seasons.
2008 marked Hamilton's incredible rise to stardom, earning him the nickname "The Natural" and putting him smack dab in the middle of Yankee Stadium, where he thrilled the crowd to its feet with Ruthian blasts during the home run derby.
2009 was not nearly as kind or storybook-like. Hamilton was caught relapsing in the offseason, and the photos spread like wildfire across the Internet.
His season, as it turned out, was also a relapse. Hamilton struggled to a .268 AVG with only 10 home runs while spending a considerable amount of time off the field and on the DL.
For fantasy owners, there will be a tough decision to make with regards to Hamilton on draft day. His stock is lower than in 2009, but the risk remains. Do we use a fourth or fifth round pick on Hamilton in 2010, or will there be no sequel to his magical 2008?
Health played a major role in Hamilton's disappointing 2009. Some were questioning if his past drug abuse somehow weakened his body, thus causing minor injuries to escalate. There are debates on this (see here and here ), but no real correlation (to my knowledge) has been 100 percent proved or disproved.
Hamilton's injuries more likely resulted from his all-out style of play. The abdominal strain that kept him out for a good chunk of the season happened after a collision with the outfield wall, a play in which he leaped in the air to snag a potential double. While we can't rule out that same sort of play happening again, it is certainly not something we can predict, like an Eric Chavez back injury.
The question really becomes, what can we expect from a healthy Josh Hamilton?
That question may be a harder one to answer than any inquires about his health. There are some fairly large discrepancies between Hamilton's 2008 and 2009 stat lines that go beyond the 5x5 fantasy categories.
In 2008 Hamilton had an incredible first half in which he hit .310 with 21 homers and 95 RBI. Even before his injury in late May of last season, Hamilton was struggling to do much of anything at the plate. He had only six home runs and 24 RBI to go along with a .240 AVG.
Many times it seemed as if Hamilton was pressing, trying to do too much at the plate. Perhaps he wanted to show that 2008 was no fluke and that his offseason slip-up was a thing of the past. Maybe that was it; maybe he just couldn't find his swing. Whatever the case, Hamilton did improve somewhat in the second half, hitting .288 after returning from the DL, but the power still never materialized.
Below is a chart showing some of the big differences between his 2008 and 2009 campaigns.
It is clear from the chart that Hamilton was unable to repeat his plate approach from 2008. He struck out more, he walked less, and he swung at more pitches outside the strike zone. There was also a stark contrast in his ground ball and fly ball rates. Interestingly, hitting more fly balls did not help Hamilton to hit more home runs as evident in his huge AB/HR differential (also a 10-percent drop in HR/FB rate).
Even though most categories see a big change from one season to the next, there are some constants in Hamilton's game to take note of. On the good side, Hamilton has continued to hit line drives over 20 percent of the time, and even a strikeout rate of 23 percent isn't horrible, though it's not necessarily good.
The real issue here is his contact rate, which has remained very low for each of the past two seasons. His contact rate in 2009 ranked him among the 20 worst in the league (min. 300 plate appearances). To put it simply, the more a player swings and misses, the less likely it is for that player to get a hit or hit for a high AVG over the long haul of a Major League season.
This does not, however, mean that a player can't hit for a high AVG with a low contact rate (see: Hamilton 2008). Hitting for power can help offset this, but there are other factors like BABIP that must work in the hitter's favor. Hamilton's BABIP over the second half of 2008 was a very high .354, which helped him hit .295 over that time and helped keep his AVG above .300 for the season.
It is Hamilton's average draft position, or where he is taken in each individual draft, that will determine whether or not he is ultimately a good value in 2010. Currently at Mock Draft Central, Hamilton is coming off the boards in round five. That may be pushing it a bit if we consider three factors:
1. Because Hamilton chases a lot of bad pitches and swings and misses almost 28 percent of the time, his AVG is more likely to stick in the .280-.285 range over a full season.
2. While his injury in 2009 was from a collision with the wall, there is no guarantee it won't happen again given his style of play. The fact that it took him so long to recover also raises a small red flag.
3. We only have two seasons of real usable data from Hamilton, and they are far from consistent.
If we try to meet in the middle of the 2008 and 2009 seasons, we come up with a line that is far from a fifth round value. Even if we just assume he is healthy and that there is a regression from his 2008 numbers, we still get something around .290, with 25 home runs.
Does Josh Hamilton still have the talent to outperform lowered expectations? Yes, but how can we say for sure that he will be the star he was in 2008? Even in that great season he displayed only average to below average plate discipline skills.
When trying to predict and project the future production from a baseball player, we can only go on the information that is in front of us. From both watching Hamilton play last year as well and analyzing his stats, I simply cannot endorse another .300 AVG, 30 home run season. To do so he would have to play at least 150 games, as he did in 2008.
Are his projected numbers far from what we can expect from Carlos Lee a round later or Andre Ethier two rounds later?
My projections (out soon!) won't show much different. Even the fans (via FanGraphs.com ), who tend to be more optimistic than the other projection systems, see Hamilton missing some time and producing less because of it.
The bottom line: Play it safe when it comes to drafting Josh Hamilton in 2010. Outfield is a deep position, and there is no need to reach on the hope that 2008 happens again.