Josh Hamilton: Rebound candidate?

Hamilton can still impact the ball - Jim Cowsert-USA TODAY Sports

The Hamilton narrative is that he's a free swinger whose free swinging ways caught up to him in 2013. Is that really the case?

When the Angels signed Josh Hamilton to a five year, $125M contract before the 2013 season, many people considered the move another poor investment by the Halos because of his history, age, and a long, winding list of other red flags. When Hamilton cratered in 2013, some people considered it validation of their opinions. He was even called a "hack" by one of our favorite FanGraphs writers early in the 2013 season. Now that 2013 is history, we can look at a larger sample of data. Based on that larger sample, Hamilton's poor performance may have been a blip rather than a decline in talent.

Hamilton's unfortunate low-walk, high-strikeout, swing-at-everything-everywhere approach can easily explain away a lot of his poor performance. Or, at least, that's the narrative. Narratives can be wrong.

In contrast to the narrative, Hamilton was a bit more selective in 2013 compared to 2012. He swung less at things outside the strike zone, and his swinging strike rate declined. One would expect a decline in strikeout rate based on these numbers, but that didn't happen. This is because Hamilton saw more pitches and swung at fewer pitches in the zone compared to 2012, which probably led to more called strikes. If Hamilton can focus on swinging more in the zone while retaining his less free-swinging ways, he can reduce the number of called strikes and perhaps decrease his strikeout rate.

The bigger story in Hamilton's data is what happened after he made contact. Following are three tables for ground balls, fly balls, and line drives; each table shows his production and pull ratios, and the fly ball and line drive tables show the average distance in feet, which is a proxy for how hard he hit the ball.

Year GB AVG GB SLG GB Pull Ratio
2007 0.236 0.245 4.4
2008 0.255 0.290 3.9
2009 0.189 0.211 3.0
2010 0.270 0.292 4.1
2011 0.222 0.228 2.6
2012 0.234 0.253 2.9
2013 0.235 0.253 2.8

Year FB AVG FB SLG FB Pull Ratio FB Avg Dist
2007 0.364 1.195 0.2 296.1
2008 0.338 1.038 0.5 294.5
2009 0.238 0.590 0.5 287.4
2010 0.430 1.232 0.5 307.2
2011 0.280 0.839 0.5 282.3
2012 0.354 1.211 0.6 296.6
2013 0.228 0.696 0.3 269.1

Year LD AVG LD SLG LD Pull Ratio LD Avg Dist
2007 0.680 0.940 0.8 251.6
2008 0.704 0.917 0.8 253.7
2009 0.825 1.070 1.3 257.1
2010 0.777 0.957 1.2 249.2
2011 0.810 1.226 1.9 254.5
2012 0.788 1.059 1.3 264.4
2013 0.734 1.032 1.9 253.8

There are plenty of numbers there, so I shall highlight some important trends. Looking at Hamilton's line drive data, the average distance and production have stayed relatively stable even though he has, in fact, aged. His pull ratio has increased through the years. This is a fairly common phenomenon; as a player ages and loses power to go the opposite way, he must compensate by pulling the ball in the air more. Combined with a stable line drive rate, Hamilton has a fairly good performance base.

Looking at his ground ball data, he has pulled grounders less as he has aged, which bodes well for avoiding the shift in the future. It's possible that he is losing his ability to impact ground balls, but his performance data don't seem to show that just yet.

The fly balls are where some seriously enlightening things happen. Hamilton's pull ratios had been slightly increasing with age, similar to his line drive pull ratios, until 2013. Hamilton's production dropped like it was hot, and his average fly ball distance reflected a precipitous drop in his ability to impact the ball.

Putting all this together, Hamilton somewhat improved his plate discipline, maintained his production on ground balls and line drives, and failed miserably on fly balls. Looking at a 2011 article about his injury history, I think an argument could be made that Hamilton, under the pressure of a big market and the weight of several million dollar signs, played through some nagging, day-to-day type of injuries for much of the year. This argument isn't perfect because a nagging injury should affect his line drive production as well, but there appeared to be no effect.

Alternatively, Hamilton could have been instructed to go to the opposite field more on fly balls. Since Hamilton is getting older, he might be losing the ability to impact the ball going the opposite way, which could explain the massive drop in his average fly ball distance. Another probable factor was a less hitter-friendly home environment.

For 2014, if Hamilton is healthy, he is due for a rebound. He is perfectly capable of altering his pull ratios, and pulling the ball more in the air could restore some of his power. He probably won't reach the production of his Ranger days due to aging and the new home digs, but he should return to being a viable player if he can stay healthy. A big if.

. . .

All statistics courtesy of FanGraphs and Baseball Heat Maps.

Kevin Ruprecht is a contributor for Beyond the Box Score. He also writes at Royal Stats for Everyone. You can follow him on Twitter at @KevinRuprecht.

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