CHICAGO, IL: Josh Hamilton of the Texas Rangers hits a solo-home run against the Chicago White Sox at U.S. Cellular Field in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by David Banks/Getty Images)
Josh Hamilton got off to an almost impossible start to the 2012 season. Since then, things have been considerably more possible. Alarmingly so, even.
If it feels like just yesterday that Josh Hamilton hit four home runs in one game against the Orioles, then not a lot has happened in your life. Josh Hamilton actually had his big game in Baltimore on May 8, which was just about two full months ago. That was an incredible game, and Hamilton didn't exactly let up -- two games later, he homered, then he homered twice in the game after that, then he homered again in the game after that.
Through May 12, Hamilton had batted 138 times, with a 1.334 OPS. Between 2001-2004, Barry Bonds posted a 1.368 OPS. Josh Hamilton was flipping out, as the American League's version of Matt Kemp. He looked unstoppable, and his Texas Rangers looked unstoppable, and now we're going to use May 12 as an arbitrary endpoint. Beginning May 13, Hamilton's in a stretch of 188 plate appearances over which he's posted an .817 OPS. That is very good! That is also more than 500 points worse than his earlier OPS.
Don't worry about the arbitrariness of the endpoints -- I realize how arbitrary they are, and I'm not attempting anything scientific. The point here is just that Hamilton has cooled off in a big way. We'd expect Hamilton to cool off, because Hamilton isn't Barry Bonds even when he looks like Barry Bonds, but there's something troubling going on underneath. Josh Hamilton's overall results haven't only been sinking; something else has been sinking, too, that might be bringing the results down with it.
We're going to break this up by month, because that's what's easiest for me. And we're going to ignore July, because July just started and can't tell us anything of value. Let's begin with Hamilton's OPS:
Let's follow with Hamilton's swing rate:
We follow that with Hamilton's contact rate:
Contact rate is simply times making contact with the ball over times swinging at the ball. The league average is right around 80 percent. In April, out of 249 batters with at least 50 plate appearances, Hamilton's contact rate ranked 13th-lowest. In May, it ranked ninth-lowest. In June, it ranked first-lowest. No other regular or semi-regular batter posted a lower contact rate than superstar Josh Hamilton in June. The next-worst rate was 63 percent, belonging to whoever Brian Bixler is. That's a lot of swings and misses.
On its own, swinging and missing isn't the end of the world. Just as Juan Pierre isn't a fantastic hitter because he hits everything, Adam Dunn isn't a miserable hitter because he whiffs pretty often. Ryan Howard, Giancarlo Stanton, Adam Dunn, and Jim Thome are examples of high-whiff batters who are also productive batters. But if you're going to be highly successful while swinging and missing, you generally need to have some patience, and Hamilton swings all the time. His swing rate is baseball's second-highest, and his swing rate at balls is baseball's second-highest. Hamilton has drawn 33 walks, but eight of those were intentional. Others, I'm sure, were unintentionally intentional. A season ago, Hamilton drew 26 unintentional walks, with 93 strikeouts. His strikeout rate now is even higher.
Dave Cameron has written a lot about Josh Hamilton's 2012 season over at FanGraphs, with examples here and here. With the productivity, the swings, and the whiffs, Hamilton's season has been kind of unprecedented, as best as we can tell. And when you're dealing with an unprecedented performance, you expect it to start to look more precedented over time. Hamilton's swing and contact numbers are his core numbers, and you look for results-performance to match up with core performance given a sufficient sample.
Hamilton's been swinging all season long. Truthfully, he's been swinging all career long, but he's swinging now more than ever, and he's missing now far more than ever. He also owns insane overall numbers. Hamilton's is one stat page from which you can't take your eyes. There's so much reason to be positive, and so much reason to be pessimistic. From the looks of things, Hamilton needs to make some adjustments, because his early success is something of a distant memory.
Pitchers seem to have adjusted somewhat to Josh Hamilton. In April, he saw 82 percent as many fastballs as the Rangers overall. In May, 85 percent, but in June, 74 percent. Pitchers have changed the way they're working against Hamilton, and so far Hamilton has been far less successful. Acceptably successful, but nowhere near as successful as before.
So we'll monitor this now from here through the end of the season. Hamilton's still set to become a free agent, and he's long been set to become one of the most fascinating free agents in the history of free agency. Hamilton was always going to come with certain concerns, namely his health and his history of substance abuse. Right now, Hamilton has a third concern -- the frighteningly low rate of contact. He presently has the numbers, and he presently has what some consider the greatest skillset in the game, but somehow Josh Hamilton has become only a more interesting case with the passage of time. There just aren't other players like Josh Hamilton. Now more than ever.