Josh Hamilton is among the best players to ever put on a Ranger uniform. Acquiring him from the Cincinnati Reds, in exchange for Edinson Volquez and Danny Ray Herrera, is one of the best moves Jon Daniels has made as the Rangers' g.m.
Hamilton's 2010 MVP season was probably the greatest season in Ranger history by a player not named Alex Rodriguez. He was instrumental in the Rangers having a surprising level of success in 2008, and after a poor 2009 campaign, has been a huge part in the Rangers getting to the World Series in 2010 and 2011.
And he's also someone who should be wearing a different uniform after the 2012 season.
First things first...let's take a look at Hamilton's performance in the majors:
|162 Game Avg.||162||692||622||101||192||39||5||32||117||10||2||56||126||.308||.366||.543||.909||134||338||10||5||0||8||9|
Other than his 2009 season, a terrific player, just going off the raw numbers.
What about WAR? The table below shows Hamilton's fWAR and bWAR since 2007:
Hamilton's all over the map here. He was first in the A.L. among position players in fWAR in 2010, third in bWAR. He was also fourth in bWAR in 2008. 2009 was a lost year for him, so we can ignore that.
In 2011, however, Hamilton was just 25th in the A.L. in fWAR, 29th in the A.L. in bWAR. Even in 2008, Hamilton was just 17th in the A.L. in fWAR.
Don't like WAR? Think the defensive numbers are too variable? That's fine...we can use VORP instead. Hamilton was 19th in the A.L. in VORP in 2011, 8th in 2008. And if we use WARP (BP's version of WAR) instead of VORP, Hamilton checks in at 21st in the A.L. in 2008, 16th in 2011.
So no surprise there...Hamilton was a transcendent superstar in 2010, was terrible in 2009, and was a terrific player in 2008 and 2011, but probably not really an elite, superstar-level player in either of those two years. FanGraphs' value calculations have Hamilton as being worth $34.2 million in 2010, $18.9 million in 2011, and $18.6 million in 2008.
I think it is reasonable to believe that Hamilton is likely looking at getting a Jayson Werth-type contract after 2012 from someone. Hamilton will be entering his age 32 season in 2013, the first year of his new deal. Werth was entering his age 32 season in 2012, the first year of his new deal.
Werth got a 7 year, $126 million contract from the Nationals that's 18 million per year over the life of the deal for Werth's age 32-38 seasons. Hamilton is considered to be better than Werth, definitively has more fan appeal and cachet than Werth, and FanGraphs said that even in his two good but not-MVP-good seasons, he was worth at least $18 million per year. So give Hamilton $18 million for 6-7 years, lock him up long-term, let him spend much of the next decade mashing in the middle of the Rangers' lineup and retire a Ranger, and everyone is happy, right?
Sure...so long as Hamilton keeps performing like he did in 2008 and 2011. Is that a realistic assumption, though?
Some think it is. Some view Hamilton as someone who is incredibly talented, who has fought through adversity, who is the type of five tool player who should be expected to age well, assuming he stays healthy.
I asked Dan Szymborski of ESPN and BTF if he could run the ZiPS projections for Hamilton going forward, which Dan graciously agreed to do. Dan ran Hamilton's figures as both a left fielder and a center fielder. I'm using Hamilton's projections as a left fielder below, both because the numbers are pretty close either way, and because I think Hamilton will be playing left field if he were to stay with Texas:
That give anyone else pause? When I was thinking about this, before getting the numbers from Dan, my thinking was that I'd offer Hamilton a 3 year, $51 million extension this offseason (since he's under contract for 2012 already, that would take him through 2015). If he took it, fine. If not, I'd let him play 2012 and explore his options in free agency.
Dan's numbers seem to suggest that even that 3 year, $51 million extension is overly generous.
I have no doubt that the ZiPS projection is going to elicit hostile reactions from people who think this is too negative. Only 23 homers next season? That's absurd, right? And not hitting .300 again in his career, when he hit .359 in 2010? Get your nose out of the statsheet and watch the games, geek!
Except that sort of performance isn't really out of line with what he's done during his career. Hamilton had only 25 home runs last season, and has never hit more than 32 in a season. ZiPS sees Hamilton's home run total dropping by just two between in 2011 and 2012, in basically the same number of at bats.
Moreover, Hamilton's .359 batting average in 2010 looks like one of the more extreme outlier seasons you will ever see from a player. Hamilton's batting averages in his other seasons in the majors have been .292, .304, .268, and .298. The .359 average was 55 points above what he's ever done in any other season, 51 points above his .308 career average.
The driver for that .359 average, it turns out, was a .390 BABIP in 2010. Hamilton's career BABIP is .338, and his career high BABIP other than in 2010 is the .333 BABIP in 2008.
What makes that .390 BABIP even more baffling is that Hamilton's line drive rate has been consistent throughout his career from 2007 through 2011, his line drive rate has only varied from a career high of 22% (in 2010) to a career low of 21% (in 2011). If you use the conventional "add .120 to the line drive rate" method for determining an expected BABIP, then you'd expect a .340 BABIP from Hamilton in 2010, rather than a .390 BABIP.
The fact that the 2010 BABIP is so high above expectations doesn't make Hamilton's 2010 season less valuable, but it does drive home the point that 2010 was an extreme outlier, the exception, not something we should reasonably expect Hamilton to duplicate going forward.
And it also makes ZiPS projected batting averages for Hamilton going forward seem very reasonable.
Dan notes that the biggest problem ZiPS has with Hamilton (and the biggest red flag that I think any front office would have vis-a-vis Hamilton) is the amount of time he's missed because of injuries.
Look at Hamilton's games played by season, since 2007: 90, 156, 89, 133, 121. Hamilton spent time on the d.l. in 2007 with gastroenteritis and with a sprained wrist. He essentially missed half of 2009 with a bruised rib cage and with an abdominal strain. Hamilton missed the end of the 2010 season with another bruised rib cage. He missed time early in 2011 with a broken shoulder, and was hampered late in the season and in the playoffs because of a sports hernia.
Bob Sturm pointed out back in 2005, in reference to the Rangers' curious (and ultimately foolish) decision to put Greg Colbrunn on the 40 man roster and count on him as a bench bat, that the problem with counting on injury-prone players is that they tend to get injured. Players also tend to get injured more often, not less often, as they age. My guess is that years of substance abuse would tend to make that tendency to get injured as you age more severe, rather than less severe. There is really no reason to expect Hamilton to give you more than 120 games per season going forward.
Injury history aside, there's other concerns about Hamilton as he ages. One of the things that I find worrisome about counting on Hamilton going forward is that he seems to come across as a bit of a headcase, needing things to be just so for him to be able to perform.
There's the day game problem, of course, which has been covered at length, and which has featured Hamilton blaming his inability to hit in the day time on his blue eyes. And Hamilton has hit poorly in the day, with a career .246/.316/.415 day line, including a .220/.302/.317 line in 2011. But his inability to hit in the day seems to be less about blue eyes and more about Hamilton, it seems.
We also have the comments about Hamilton being moved from the #4 spot in the lineup to the #3 spot, supposedly because Hamilton's uncomfortable hitting fourth, and prefers hitting third so that he knows he'll get an at bat in the first inning. There was also Craig Gentry moving to left field so that Hamilton could play center against Tampa Bay at one point in the ALDS, supposedly because Ron Washington didn't want to mess with Hamilton's "mental state" after having told him he'd play center in the playoffs. Little things, but taken all together, it makes me wonder if Hamilton isn't the ballplayer equivalent of a Ferrari...great when everything's right, but tempermental, and spending way too much time in the shop.
The other thing that really worries me about what Hamilton is going to do going forward is seeing how his plate discipline has deteriorated over the past several years. Here is Hamilton's swing percentage, swing percentage on pitches outside of the zone, percentage of pitches thrown to him in the strike zone and unintentional walk rate as a major leaguer:
|Year||Swing %||O-Swing %||Zone %||BB Rate (exc. IBB)|
The trend is unmistakable...Hamilton has, as his career has progressed, swung at more pitches, and swung at more pitches outside of the strike zone. As a result, pitchers are throwing him fewer and fewer strikes, but despite seeing fewer strikes, his unintentional walk rate is dropping precipitously.
Hamilton had 39 walks last season, which makes the .298/.346 spread between his average and OBP look somewhat respectable. But 13 of those walks were intentional...Hamilton drew a whopping 26 unintentional walks in 538 plate appearances in 2011.
Let's put the above numbers in perspective...Hamilton's 40.8% swing percentage on pitches outside of the strike zone was the 10th highest in MLB last year. Ahead of him were Vladimir Guerrero (47.4%), Alfonso Soriano (45.6%), Miguel Olivo, Adam Jones, Alex Gonzalez, Mark Trumbo, Robinson Cano, Jeff Francoeur, and Delmon Young. The only other qualifying major leaguer above 38% was Yuniesky Betancourt, at 40.4%.
That's not the sort of company you want to be keeping, at least in 2011, if you are looking for elite offensive production.
Hamilton's 39.6% of pitches that he saw that were in the strike zone was 6th lowest in the majors, trailing Prince Fielder, Ryan Howard, Mike Stanton, Freddie Freeman, and Guerrero, with Mark Teixeira, Aubrey Huff, and Adrian Gonzalez also below 40%. Now, that's a much more impressive grouping of talent.
Here's the problem with this grouping, though...other than Guerrero, none of the others on that list swing at pitches outside of the strike zone as often as Hamilton. In fact, the only others on the list who swing at pitches outside of the strike zone even a third of the time are Freeman (36.8%) and Gonzalez (35.5%).
Guerrero and Hamilton are also the outliers when it comes to pitches within the strike zone that they chase...Hamilton and Vlad (80.5%) are the only ones above 80%. Freddie Freeman is at 76.4%, Ryan Howard is at 71.7%, and everyone else is at 70% or less.
Hamilton and Guerrero are birds of a feather. The rest of the guys on this list are, for the most part, selective. They don't see a ton of strikes, but they don't chase many balls out of the zone, and are relatively selective on the strikes they do swing at. Hamilton and Guerrero, though, are see-the-ball-chase-the-ball types.
And that's the thing that really scares me about Hamilton going forward. He's survived, and thrived, because of incredible natural talent and hand-eye coordination. He's thrived despite a terrible approach at the plate. Its worked for him, so far.
But Hamilton looks to me to be the type of player who, once his bat slows even a fractional amount, is going to slip quickly.
The two recent players who seem most similar to Hamilton, in terms of both approach and performance through age 30, are Vladimir Guerrero and Alfonso Soriano. All fast, athletic players who made up for a lack of plate discipline with a preternatural ability to make contact and drive the ball, wherever it might be pitched.
Here's Vlad's numbers from age 27 through age 31:
Here's Vlad's numbers from age 32 (Hamilton's first free agency year) through last season's age 36 campaign:
How about Alfonso Soriano? From age 27 through age 31:
And then from age 32 through last season's age 35 campaign:
Hamilton is better than Soriano, not as good as Guerrero, but I suspect that his aging pattern will look similar. If he stays healthy (a huge if with him anyway), Hamilton will probably be solid in 2012, 2013, maybe 2014. But around 2014-15, I expect Hamilton to start sliding, and when the slide comes, it will be dramatic and ugly. Between injuries and skill deterioration, I expect Hamilton to be done as a regular by 2016.
Its going to be tough for the Rangers to let Hamilton walk. He's wildly popular, and the casual fans are already clamoring for the Rangers to go ahead and give him $20 million per year for the next half-dozen years. Letting C.J. Wilson walk is one thing...the team will catch some flak, sure, but it will blow over quick. Letting Josh Hamilton go, though, will be a whole different firestorm, one that will probably generate more anger among Rangers fans than anything since Pudge left a decade ago.
And maybe it won't happen. Maybe Hamilton will agree to a reasonable, short-term deal to stick around a few more years.
I don't expect it to happen, though. I expect some team looking to make a splash, wanting a middle of the order hitter and a big name that will galvanize the fans, to give Hamilton Jayson Werth money.
And when that happens, I sure as hell hope the Rangers have the sense to let him walk.