[Editor's note: I'm pushing this back to the top for the time being, if only because it went up late yesterday afternoon. All statistics/data are current as of Friday morning. Hamilton went 1-for-5 last night with a homer, which is good, but still dropped his OPS/wOBA by a hair, so there's that.]
"I'm not sure anyone should ever throw Josh Hamilton a strike again."
It's been another one of those years for the so-dubbed best player in baseball. There were the tremendous lows of February, followed by a period where everything sort of smoothed itself out, and then the incredible highs of April and early May, where Josh produced long balls at a near-historic rate, followed by ... well, what exactly? We knew he almost certainly couldn't sustain an OPS north of 1.300 over the long haul, but it's been somewhat rough going over the last three weeks, and, more specifically, since May 16th, as he has mustered "only" a .227/.286/.440 showing over his last 19 games and 84 plate appearances, and has watched his OPS dip below 1.100 for the first time since April 14th.
We also know that rough stretches are an inescapable reality of baseball, and that, at some point, Hamilton is going to resume hitting in the way that he's capable of hitting -- but the data reveals a few unsettling realities of its own as far as Josh Hamilton's approach of late.
I would say that we're fairly well acquainted with the direction in which Hamilton's plate discipline has been trending over the last few years, but here's a sort of general overview (all data/heat maps are courtesy of ESPN Stats & Info):
2012: 57.3% swing rate, 33.8% miss rate, 33.1% zone rate, 43.8% chase rate
2011: 54.8% swing rate, 26.6% miss rate, 40.0% zone rate, 37.5% chase rate
2010: 53.9% swing rate, 26.5% miss rate, 42.6% zone rate, 35.0% chase rate
2009: 56.5% swing rate, 29.2% miss rate, 42.4% zone rate, 37.9% chase rate
Hamilton, in the aggregate, has been swinging at more pitches this year despite seeing fewer pitches in the strike zone, and has been missing more often while doing so. When viewed in isolation, that's kind of disturbing, and isn't a trend that his potential long-term suitors will want to see from a player on the wrong side of 30, whose elite physical tools have a finite life -- but, then again, he is still well above the 1.000 OPS line of demarcation, so he has clearly done a lot of things right to put himself in this position, foremost among those being tagging outside pitches with authority.
Below, we have Hamilton's hit frequency heat maps for the 2010-12 seasons from left to right, all of which basically conform with our past perceptions -- as time has gone by, pitchers have trended further and further outside against Josh, and he's stroked more and more of his base hits on outside pitches (again, you're looking at 2010 on the left, 2011 in the middle, and 2012 on the right; click any of these to enlarge):
And, once again, that's fine from an overall standpoint, because he's clearly made the most of his opportunities up to this point ... but as pitchers have gone further and further outside against Hamilton this season, he has kept on hacking, and, as a consequence, his success has begun to wane. Below, we have Hamilton's pitch frequency heat maps for April, May, and June 2012 from left to right, which basically affirm what we already suspected as far as the league adjusting to Hamilton's swing-at-everything tendencies.
In the leftmost (April) heat map, 34.7 percent of the pitches Hamilton saw were in the strike zone; in the middle (May) heat map, that percentage dropped to 32.1 percent, and in the right (June) heat map, that percentage has fallen to 31.5 percent -- but through it all, Hamilton has maintained a swing rate of roughly 57-58 percent, and is showing no signs of letting up now:
So, in essence, pitchers are throwing Hamilton far fewer strikes than any other batter in baseball, but he's swinging more often than virtually any other hitter in baseball (Delmon Young holds the major league lead there) ... and, of course, it had been working, until it stopped working quite so well.
One of the things that especially disturbs me vis-a-vis Hamilton's recent issues at the plate is the diminishing lack of restraint. Here are Hamilton's (admittedly arbitrary hitting splits) from Opening Day up through May 16th (after which I believe you could legitimately argue that he began to "slump), and from May 17th up through the present:
4/6-5/16: .404/.458/.838, 57.0% swing rate, 34.2% zone rate, 42.6% chase rate
5/17-6/8: .227/.286/.440, 57.8% swing rate, 31.0% zone rate, 46.1% chase rate
And now, Hamilton's swing frequency heat maps for these same two periods, which illustrates the locations of the pitches that he's been swinging at during each of these two periods, with the hot early-season run on the left, and the cooler recent run on the right. Take particular notice of how much farther outside of the strike zone Hamilton is swinging right now:
The ability to identify and implement needed adjustments is one of the greatest determinants of success in baseball, and, right now, Hamilton is failing hard at this central aspect of the game. He killed the baseball for weeks on end, the league adjusted, and now the league is winning, with no apparent end in sight if his especially poor look at the plate over the last 7-10 days is any indication. If and when he counterpunches and gets himself right again and begins to refrain from hacking at pitches so far outside the zone that not even he can put the bat on them (much less drive them with any kind of authority), he'll be an asset to the Rangers again, and may well resume his AL MVP push.
But, unfortunately, he isn't giving anyone any reason to throw him a strike. And, to the detriment of Hamilton, his impending save-the-world contract, and the Rangers, it's finally catching up to him.