Monday, February 24, 2014

By Greg Bird, Staff Writer -  

To say that Josh Hamilton’s first 4 months with the Angels was a disappointment is a huge understatement. On the morning of August 8th, 2013 Josh had a slash line of .217/.271/.397. This was an unmitigated disaster. What was wrong? Nobody had a clear answer and Josh looked lost at the plate. He turned things around a couple of days later and ended 2013 with stats that were at least passable for a major leaguer, .250/.307/.432 but this wasn’t the Josh Hamilton we thought we were getting.

Here we are staring at the 2014 Baseball Season and one of the big questions is which Josh Hamilton will show up? Josh says he struggled because he lost too much weight and didn’t have enough power behind his swing. To fix this he came into camp at 240 pounds instead of the 217 pounds of 2013. Other people suggest it was the pressure he put on himself in the first year of a big contract that snowballed. Others are still baffled. Here at Inside the Numbers we will look at the facts, the stats, and see what went wrong. Do the numbers validate one of these stories or do they tell a story all their own?

Since Hamilton’s struggles were so profound and since his struggle seemed to start in the middle of the 2012 season a lot of in depth research has been done to try to unravel this mystery. The research has produced a lot of numbers. I will do my best to present them clearly. I have broken the 2013 season down into two parts, the one in which Josh was terrible (4/1/13-8/7/13), and then the part in which he turned it around (8/10/13-9/29/13). I also compared 2013’s difficulties with the part of 2012 where he struggled (6/20/12-10/3/12).

We are going to delve into Josh’s results and approaches against the different types of pitches he faced. I have decided to focus on these 5 pitch types: Fourseam, Sinker, Changeup, Curve, and Slider. The reason we will look at individual pitches is because Josh’s struggles and subsequent turnaround wasn’t complete and it seems to be a lot of little adjustments that added or subtracted from his results. These little adjustments require us to look at these fine details of what changed for Hamilton pitch to pitch.

I’d like to give a quick thank you to Brooks Baseball that provides all this info for free to baseball fans. If you’d like to look into this yourself then Brooks Baseball would be the place to start. For those who just want a summation of all of this you can skip to the end and you won’t have to get caught up in all the numbers. For those who like the details, enjoy!

Let’s start with Josh’s approach to the four-seam fastball. Hamilton, like most hitters, does well against the four-seam fastball with a career batting average against (BAA) of .312. Throughout all of 2012 he was able to catch up with the four-seam fastballs he faced with a batting average against of .292. During the last part of 2012 as he struggled in general he was still able to hit four-seamers at a .323 clip. Josh’s ability to hit the straightest of all fastballs collapsed in the first part of 2013. For the first four months of 2013 he had a .193 BAA. What happened?

This first obvious problem Hamilton had in 2013 was that he was popping up more than is normal for him. Throughout Josh’s career he usually pops up 4.87% of four-seam fastballs he puts in play (PU/BIP) but in the first part of 2012 he was popping up whopping 14.24% of them. Since a pop up in play is nearly a guaranteed out this would’ve dropped his batting average but not enough to account for his entire precipitous plunge.

Josh said he wasn’t getting enough power out of his swing because of the weight he lost. He generally likes to hit flyballs and does well while doing so. Of all the four-seamers he’s put in play through his career 40.19% are flyballs. During his slump in 2013 33.33% were flyballs and when he pulled himself out of the slump in August and had a .361 BAA with only 25.81% flyballs. If we pull up his spray charts from 2012 and compare them to 2013 it is clear that hits off the four-seamer weren’t travelling as far they did in 2013. Whether it was his weight or his swing something caused him to hit with less power in 2013. It seems the adjustment he made in the last two months was to hit more line drives and groundballs and fewer pop ups, with that he had more success against the four-seam fastballs he faced.

Hamilton is historically very successful against sinking fastballs with a career .378 BAA. This continued through the first part of 2012 but when he started struggling in 2012 sinkers were one pitch that was part of that struggle. His BAA sinkers dropped from .484 in the first two months of 2012 to .289 in the last three and half months of 2012. This struggle continued in the first four months of 2013 with a .283 BAA.

The only thing that noticeably changed in these four periods was the rate at which Hamilton was putting the ball into play (BIP). In the first two months he put 19.4% of sinkers into play and this dropped to 17.39% in the last three and a half months. For the first four months of 2013 he maintained a similar 17.51% BIP versus sinkers but in the last two months of 2013 that increased back to 19.64%.

Another interesting thing to note is that in the last two months the percentage of groundballs he was getting off sinkers increased dramatically to 68.18%. This is far above his career average of 52.5% or the percentage of groundballs off sinkers in the beginning of 2012, 46.15%. This caused a large drop off in his power versus sinkers. In his career 1.3% of all sinkers get deposited over the wall but in the last half of 2013 Josh had 0 homeruns off a sinker. Mostly this was due to a large drop in his line drives (13.99% drop) and a small drop in flyballs (4.19% drop). We could speculate this could be an intentional adjustment by Hamilton due to his loss of power but it could just be dumb luck. In any case it worked to Hamilton’s advantage.

The changeup has been a pitch that Josh has a tough time with in a general sense. In his MVP year he had a good handle on it with a .320 BAA but his career batting average against the changeup is only .262. During his entire 2012 campaign he didn’t have much success adjusting to the changeup and sported a .194 BAA. 2013 began much like 2012 but with a slight improvement to a .210 BAA. The big change seems to come in the last two months of 2013 as he improves his BAA changeups to .346. This is one of his best stretches against the changeup he’s ever had. What did he do to change his approach?

Josh didn’t see a changeup he didn’t like in 2012 and swung at 67.17% of them. He also wasn’t very good in 2012 at making contact with the changeups he did swing at with a 43.95% whiff/swing. This means when he did swing he whiffed 43.95% of the time or almost half of his swings were misses. Historically he does whiff a lot on changeups but this was worse than his career mark of 41.43%. He is also generally more selective about which ones he swings at with a career swing rate of 63.96%. So in 2012 he swung at more changeups and whiffed more times. Not a good combo.

Josh in 2013 tried to change his approach and reduced his swing rate to 60.27% during the first four months and had a whiff/swing rate of only 37.78%. These are both significantly better than his career marks. What he was unable to do was get the ball in play (BIP) more as only 20.09% of the changeups were put into play. This is very similar to his 20.48% BIP from 2012. He cut down on swings and misses but he still wasn’t putting the ball in play so good things could happen for him.

Putting changeups into play is one of the big areas that changed in the last two months of 2013. His BIP on changeups increased to 25.93%. Hamilton also was even more selective, only swinging at only 56.79% of the changeups he saw. It looks like his selectivity paid off as he cut down his whiff/swing rate to 32.61%. He now was just whiffing on 1 of every 3 changeups as opposed to 1 of every 2. In 2012 and early 2013 he was whiffing on changeups down and away and up and away in the zone, but he reduced that to down and out of the zone and down and away. He was getting better plate coverage, being more selective, and putting more balls in play. All of these adjustments resulted in one of his best batting averages versus changeups (.346 BAA) in his career.

Hamilton can be hot and cold versus opposing pitcher’s curveballs and sports an average career BAA of .271. In his MVP year he hit .404 against curveballs he faced and he can really punish the curve at times. Josh’s trouble with the curve was much like his trouble with the sinker. He handled it well in the first couple months of 2012 then struggled with it during the end of 2012 and the beginning of 2013 to finally turn it around again in the last couple of months of 2013.

Josh struggled the most with this pitch in 2012. During the last part of 2012 he started swinging at it a lot more and whiffing more than he usually does. His swing rate jumped to 65.35% from his career rate of 56.55%. His whiff/swing rate increased to 46.97% from his career baseline of 37.57%. This is similar recipe for disaster. Swinging more often and whiffing more often leads to more outs and more strikeouts. During the last few months of 2012 his BAA changeups dropped to .222.

Hamilton began to correct his approach in the first part of 2013 by being a bit more selective (58.05%) and by reducing his swings and misses to 38.06%. This helped him improve his BAA curveballs to .247 but this wasn’t enough. He was still missing the curveball all over: down (inside and outside), down in the zone and even in the middle part of the zone. He got a little more selective in the last two months of the season and reduced his whiff/swing rate to 26.09%. So instead of 2 of every 5 swings at curveballs being whiffs he only swung at and missed 1 in every 4 curveballs.

Josh was also squaring up the curve better and hitting more line drives with it. He increased his line drive rate of balls in play (LD/BIP) from 19.64% to 43.75%. By being more selective, making more contact, and by making better contact he increased his BAA curveballs to .400 in the last two months of 2013.

This brings us to the slider, the pitch that gives Hamilton the most trouble. He has a career batting average against (BAA) sliders of .231 which is his worst versus any of these five pitches. Josh began 2012 handling sliders at an above average rate with a .273 BAA. His underlying numbers don’t look good but he was getting results. This tapered off in the last part of 2012 but he still hit his career BAA of .231 even as he began to whiff more often.

This brings us to 2013 and Hamilton’s disastrous year versus the slider. This pitch is the biggest reason why he struggled in 2013 and why even his late season rebound wasn’t complete. During 2013 Hamilton had a BAA sliders of .144. In the first part of the year he tried to improve his approach by being more selective versus sliders and reduced his swing rate to 58.16% from his 2012 rate of 64.12%. He also reduced his whiff/swing rate from his late 2012 season rate of 51.97% to 46.04% in the first four months of 2013.

This all seems great and leads us to wonder why he posted such a bad batting average against (BAA) sliders (.144) in 2013. But the problem becomes clear when we look at what happens with two strikes. We see that Hamilton’s selectivity disappears with two strikes as he swings at 66% of the sliders he sees and his whiff/swing rate increases slightly to 47.96%. Pitchers figured this out and began throwing him more sliders once they got him to two strikes. Of all pitches Josh saw with two strikes in 2013 22.12% were sliders. If we look at what happens with no strikes we see only 13.65% were sliders. With two strikes Hamilton’s BAA sliders drops to .086.

This has been a career long problem for Josh. His career batting average against (BAA) sliders with two strikes in the count is a measly .136. The only positive news is when we look at where his whiffs were in 2013. In the first four months he was missing sliders all over, even down the middle of the zone. During the last two months his whiffs were confined to mostly below the zone and in the lower part of the zone. This would be a more normal place to swing and miss at a slider. This shows some minor improvement but his swing rate went back up to 62.50% and his whiff/swing rate climbed back up to 50%. Again swinging and missing more often leads to bad results.

Hamilton needs to be more selective and better able to identify sliders with two strikes if he is going to really improve at the plate. He has been capable of doing this before. During his MVP year in 2010 he only swung at 50.20% of the sliders he saw and had a whiff/swing rate of 37.90%. Whatever it was that allowed him to be so selective that year versus the slider is what he needs to recapture or pitchers are just going to pound him with sliders once they get him to two strikes.

For those who don’t like all the numbers or get bogged down in the stats here is the summation I promised: Hamilton seemed to lose some power in his swing and his fastball hitting suffered. He was popping up four-seam fastballs for guaranteed outs. Late in 2013 he started putting sinkers and fourseam fastballs on the ground. This sacrificed some of his power but he improved his batting average. His biggest improvement at the end of 2013 was against the changeup. He was more selective and cut down his swings and misses versus them. This allowed him to put more changeups into play and improved his results and batting average. He improved against curveballs in a similar way. He was more selective with which curveballs he swung at, whiffed less, and put more in play with predictably good results. Finally we come to sliders. This is where Hamilton still needs improvement. He struggles mightily with two strikes and especially seems to struggle not swinging and whiffing. He has handled them well in some seasons but 2013 was one of his worst versus the slider. It ate him alive and was a big reason why he never really was a feared hitter.

While Hamilton really did struggle with everything in 2013 he did seem to figure a few things out late. Early reports from Tempe are that he has his power swing back. That could really help him versus the hard stuff. His adjustments versus changeups and curveballs are sustainable. If he maintains his selectivity he could really punish pitchers who try to use those as an out pitch. The biggest issue to watch is how he handles the slider. If he is unable to identify it and lay off of it with two strikes then he won’t return to the Hamilton that was feared throughout the Major Leagues. I have to believe that pitchers will give him a steady diet of sliders until he proves he can handle them. If he adjusts to the slider we could see another monster year from Josh.

Love to hear what you think!

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