By Robert Cunningham, AngelsWin.com Contributor -
This season has had more than its share of disappointments for Angel’s fans and one of the biggest disappointments has been the struggles of Josh Hamilton at the plate.
Simply put Josh has been swinging at a lot of pitches outside of the strike zone and, when he does put the ball in play, he has not hit the ball quite as hard and it has not found as many holes as it normally has for him in the past.
Additionally, Hamilton has faced an increasing number of off-speed pitches and has had particular trouble with sinkers, curveballs, and especially changeups.
So what does this mean now and in the future for Josh? Will he return to the Hamilton of old and post an on-base plus slugging over 1.000? Or will he slip further, forcing the Angels to push him into a really expensive bench role at some future, point in time?
The answer appears to be somewhere in-between and let me explain why.
Batting Average on Balls in Play (BABIP)
For those of you unfamiliar with BABIP, please take the time to read these two articles, here and here.
In seven big league seasons Josh Hamilton has a career average .327 BABIP. This is a typical number you would see when you examine really good hitters and/or decent hitters with good speed.
In 2013, Hamilton currently has a BABIP of .257, which is 70 points below his career average, above.
This can indicate a number of different things but it appears to be related to four main areas: Pitch recognition, batted ball data, park factors, and defensive shifts.
Clearly one of the biggest issues is Hamilton’s pitch recognition. All year opposing pitchers have been throwing him low and outside or high and outside and Josh has been swinging all day long.
In particular Hamilton has had trouble with off-speed stuff. He has been swinging and missing at a number of sinkers, curveballs, and changeups this year that have led to weak contact and/or strikeouts.
Opposing pitchers throw the off speed stuff to Josh so that when he swings (thinking fastball) the head of his bat goes further through the zone and either misses the ball completely or makes weaker contact with it in front of the plate hitting it to the right side of the diamond.
If Josh can reacquire some of the plate discipline he displayed in previous years this would go a long way towards reducing his weak contact.
He needs to recognize the off speed pitches and start his swing a split second later to keep the meat of the bat in the zone as the ball crosses the plate and drive it up the middle or even to the opposite field.
Another factor is Hamilton’s reduced line drive rate, which is down almost 1% from his career average. In the ESPN BABIP article (link is above), the average league BABIP for line drives, for 2012, was .714.
If you look strictly at his batted ball data (Line drive, groundball, and fly ball rates) from a 2012 BABIP point-of-view, that 1% equates to an approximate drop of 10 points in BABIP. The reduction in line drives leads to more ground balls and fly balls.
It is not the primary part of his problem but it does contribute to his BABIP issues. Hitters who smack line drives and make hard contact (such as Mike Trout) will see a lot of hits fall into the gaps in the outfield and through holes in the infield.
There are also park factors to consider. According to ESPN data, Arlington ballpark had an average BABIP of .311 for last year in 2012. Anaheim stadium had an average .290 BABIP last season.
Moving from one stadium to another for half of the season would account for an approximate 10 point BABIP swing in Hamilton’s overall total for the year.
Finally, Josh has been the target of several defensive shifts throughout the season. This is a consequence of his struggles with pitch recognition and chasing after off speed pitches, resulting in weak contact into the shift.
This weak contact to the right side of the diamond convinces opposing managers to shift their defense, accordingly, to increase the odds of throwing Hamilton out at first or catching a line drive or fly ball to that side of the infield.
If Hamilton can work on his approach and hit more line drives up the middle or to the opposite field, teams will be forced to stop putting the shift on him almost every at-bat and that will create more opportunities for the ball to find a hole, which can, and should, result in a corresponding increase in BABIP.
More Batted Ball Data and Injuries
Back in early August FanGraphs ran an article (found here) on the biggest decliners in HR/FB (Home Run/Fly Ball) ratios and batted ball distances from last year to this season.
Josh Hamilton, unfortunately, was on that list with an overall reduction in his HR/FB ratio of 25.6% down to 13.3%! Yikes!
His average batted ball distance dropped 26.43 feet from 2012 and, in 2013, is actually below the average for the league.
As Mike Podhorzer’s article indicates, Josh has dealt with a variety of moderate injuries throughout the season to his wrists, back, and ankles. Any one of these, or some combination, could be contributing to his problems at the plate in addition to those mentioned above.
One thing that is clear is that Josh Hamilton is probably not as bad as he has been in 2013.
Although BABIP doesn’t correlate well from year to year it does provide a snapshot of whether a player is outperforming or underperforming from their career average (which does correlate well).
It can also point towards increased or reduced contact with the ball and even hints at a player’s luckiness or unluckiness with where the balls land in the field of play.
After examining some of the contributing factors above you can see that the change in stadiums and the reduction in Josh’s line drive rate accounts for about a 20 point reduction in his overall BABIP. However that still doesn’t account for the wide gap he has experienced this year.
If Hamilton can reacquire some of his plate discipline and pitch recognition he should be able to see the ball better and make better contact up the middle and to the opposite field.
By doing this he will help reduce and/or eliminate the defensive shifts which will force the opposing defense to make the tough plays if they want to get Josh out.
Hamilton’s days as a premium middle of the order bat are declining, but they are not gone. Unless he experiences additional, persistent injuries it would not be unexpected to see Hamilton return to about 70-90% of his formal self (pre-2012) during his remaining contract years.
Heck we may even get lucky and see Hamilton go on one of his hot streaks!
Josh was, and still is, a talented baseball player. Look for him to get healthy in 2014 and focus on improved pitch recognition especially with off speed pitches. The last part is the key for him to regain his form and provide production and protection in the middle of the Angels lineup.