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Down in a Hole

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One of the early season story lines about the Texas Rangers in 2012 is Josh Hamilton's aggressive approach of swinging at the first pitch in over 60% of his plate appearances. To put that unbelievably massive number in perspective, Hamilton led all qualified batters in swinging at the first pitch for the 2011 season at 46.7%.

When you look at Josh's career 1.191 OPS when he puts the first pitch in play, that ultra aggressive approach doesn't seem like a bad idea. However that great OPS is a little misleading; it's only when he puts the ball in play. Whenever Hamilton swings and misses or fouls the first pitch off he's suddenly in the hole 0-1 and his career OPS after that situation is a very pedestrian .720 with a .289 OBP. Baseball reference doesn't track how often going down 0-1 is the result of a swing, but from his 2011 Pitch F/X data he was only able to put the ball in play one third of the time when he swung at the first pitch. A two thirds ratio of turning into a roughly league average hitter instead of a baseball god takes makes that approach a lot less appealing.

The magnitude of the drop off after getting down in the count is what has kept Josh as a very good hitter instead of an elite one. Another aggressive first pitch swinger is Miguel Cabrera. He was 10th among qualified batters in 2011 at 39.2%, but even after getting down 0-1 he has still produced above average results.

Josh Hamilton Miguel Cabrera
First Pitch 421 .420 .417 .774 1.191
After 1-0 1022 .333 .436 .590 1.027
After 0-1 1145 .253 .289 .430 .720
Provided by View Original Table
Generated 4/23/2012.
First Pitch 798 .406 .407 .747 1.154
After 1-0 2424 .308 .449 .555 1.004
After 0-1 2625 .295 .340 .493 .833
Provided by View Original Table
Generated 4/23/2012.

On Sunday afternoon Evan Grant tweeted a theory about Josh's current mindset that's part of his red hot start:

And his early 2012 results back up that confidence. He's currently sporting a .343 / .361 / .743 slash line after getting down in the count in 36 PA. While encouraging, his career numbers provide plenty of reason for skepticism about it continuing. Even more so when you consider that Hamilton lead the Rangers in swinging at pitches out of the strike zone and swings and misses in 2011 at 41.0% and 13.6% respectively, and his 2012 numbers are even higher. He's currently swinging at 43.5% of pitches out of the strike zone and missing completely at 17.1% of all the pitches he swings at, both numbers lead the Rangers again in 2012 among regular players.

It is worth noting that Josh Hamilton has been able to defy his career norms once before. In his 2010 MVP season, he put up a .305 / .343 / .561 slash line in 239 PA after being down 0-1. That's the only season since joining the Texas Rangers that he's had an OPS higher than .655 in that situation. So while very improbable that he can defy his career production using the worst plate discipline of his career, it's not quite impossible and a productive behind in the count Josh Hamilton is arguably the best hitter in baseball.