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Looking Ahead: Josh Hamilton

January 7th, 2013

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In looking forward to the 2013 season, I thought I’d take apart the Angels starting line-up one by one, starting with baseball’s prodigal son, Josh Hamilton.

Depending on the status of Peter Bourjos in the Angels’ plans, I expect Josh Hamilton to predominantly start in right field where he received a fair amount of playing time in 2008 and 2009. In his career, he’s rated slightly above average in the corner positions and slightly below in center, discrepancies sure to increase with age and any further ailments common in Hamilton’s career. Only once has he exceeded 150 games and has averaged 123 over the last four seasons. With a five-year, $133M deal, the Angels extended a huge amount of money toward a player whose health remains a gamble. So what about his production?

Josh Hamilton will turn 32 in May, a bit past his supposed statistical prime, but coming off a 43 home run season. Like C.J. Wilson, his reunited teammate from Texas, Hamilton’s age and the accompanying possibility of wear and tear cannot be taken at an exact face value. Hamilton didn’t play any professional baseball from 2003 through 2005 due to his place on baseball’s restriction list following a litany of drug offenses.

His productive major league debut with the Reds in 2006 was one of the great sports comebacks of our lifetimes. Imagine if Syd Barrett, canned from Pink Floyd for acid-fueled insanity, returned to the stage in the mid 70s and ripped off a gold-selling solo album after years in the shadows. Hamilton hadn’t returned from injuries or a drinking problem, nor was he a merely promising prospect led astray. No, Hamilton was a number 1 draft pick AND number 1 Baseball America prospect led off the rails by crack. Paul Waner talked about booze turning the baseball into a big fuzzy grapefruit and LSD experimenter Dock Ellis claimed his perfect game was helped by the ball telling him what to throw. But days and nights and eventually years wasted in crack dens crossed into a storyline too improbable even to film. Hamilton’s taken his talent, rise, fall, and return to the ultimate extremes.

The upshot is that when Hamilton led the league in RBI’s the next season with his new team, the Rangers, his story became an oft-repeated legend that sometimes overshadowed his terrific play (a 5-WAR 2008) and struggles (a 0.4-WAR 2009). The ups and downs of Hamilton’s career have continued to this day. After leading the A.L. in WAR and winning an MVP and pennant in 2010, Hamilton missed 41 games and saw his OPS+ fall 40 points in 2011. His 2012 season saw a rise in power and durability accompanied by a drop in batting average and defensive prowess. With the Angels committing $133M to Hamilton over the next five years, they’re expecting more than the 3.5 WAR he’s put up in each of the last two seasons.

Hamilton has already exceeded the expectations placed upon him when he first donned a major league uniform. Whether his career ends up meeting the bar of a first overall draft pick remains contingent on his coming years with the Halos. When the Angels signed Hamilton, I took a look at the bizarre run Hamilton had last year, one with an incredible hot streak to open the season followed by some brutal lows. We know he possesses the capabilities to dominate the diamond and despite last season’s slumps, he homered once in every 14 at bats. If healthy, Hamilton provides a primetime middle-of-the-order threat with offensive skills at least on par with, say, Kendrys Morales during his 2009 run. The Angels (and fans like us) hope that Hamilton’s salary represents a revisit to 2010 with a high average and plus defense mixing into his near-omnipresent power. Angel Stadium may dent his numbers a little bit, with a 90ish park factor falling well beneath the Ballpark in Arlington’s 112 mark for hitters. Still, Hamilton smacked only one fewer home run on the road last year with a .924 OPS falling only 13 points below his home number. His splits in 2010 and 2011 were more extreme, so it’s best to look at his lifetime 135 OPS+ as a guide moving forward.

In my mind, his 2010 MVP season is a great outlier in a very good career, like Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours*. Because of his redemption narrative, natural abilities, and his occasional hot streaks, it’s easy to look at Hamilton’s 2010 season as the expectation that only injuries and bouts of bad luck have kept him from meeting. If Hamilton won his MVP at the age of 24 and followed it with steps down, then I’d say, yeah, he could bounce back to a high level. Were Mike Trout to toss up a pair of 5 WAR seasons in 2013-2014, I’d still assume he could get back to his 2012 magic because his age pointed to still-developing skills.

*Yeah, I need to get some newer music references.

At 31, Hamilton’s probably showed us his hand. He’s a 240-pound fitness buff who looks like a superstar but major post-30 comebacks are hard to find. Mickey Mantle had his final giant season at 29(!) and spent the final 7 seasons of his career as a 3 WAR player (albeit with a different skill set than Josh’s). Because of the steroid era, baseball fans have been accustomed to post-30 runs of excellence from sluggers but in the cleaner periods before and after, we know a player typically peaks between 26 and 28. Even a legend like Albert Pujols has seen his OPS+ drop every year since his age-28 season when he peaked with a 192.

I don’t mean to scare Halos fans and I certainly don’t mean to delight Rangers fans. I wonder about Hamilton’s body. Do the nearly four years he missed make up for the wear and tear from substance abuse? Are the injuries he’s suffered from indicative of premature aging or bad luck endured by someone who pushes himself to perform? None of us, not even Hamilton, know the answers and even in traditional circumstances making predictions is a challenge. Lord Bill James has Hamilton putting up a .289/.356/.540 line with 35 home runs in 147 games, essentially an exact split between the last two seasons. He made these predictions before the Angels signed him so a small downward adjustment for stadium changes is warranted.

Either way, for Hamilton to outperform his 2011-2012 seasons would go against the odds. We’ll see a small drop in his value by virtue of moving into a corner outfield spot, but improved defense in left or right could offset the loss. Looking at Hamilton as a vital part of a big, Trout- and Pujols-led machine is wiser than treating him as the final piece needed to bring the Angels back into the playoffs. Factors beyond Hamilton’s control will dictate the presence of the Angels in October. I do think Hamilton will generate something valuable beyond WAR and defensive runs saved: Enthusiasm. Like Trout, Hamilton showcases his skills on ordinary days and amazes us on extraordinary ones. Even if he remains a good-not-great player for the bulk of the five-year contract, Hamilton will excite fans and help make the Angels a joy to watch. As a cold, literal-minded WAR freak sitting in my mother’s basement, the Hamilton signing was a nice pickup for too much money. As an Angels fan, it’s a ticket to be enthralled on a near-nightly basis. If Bourjos joins Hamilton and Trout in the outfield, the Angels will remain worth watching no matter their place in the standings.

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