The Hamilton Saga

Josh Hamilton, the new Cincinnati Reds center fielder, has been one of the best stories of the season. The first overall selection of the 1999 amateur draft looked destined for stardom during his first few seasons in pro ball, but a back injury in 2001 resulted in his first experimentation with drugs, starting an addiction that ultimately resulted in his suspension for three full seasons. Hamilton missed all of the 2003-2005 seasons, but finally, near the end of last season, he earned reinstatement into baseball. As I write this, Hamilton has been clean for one year, seven months, and 11 days. By all accounts, he’s gotten his life back together, and he’s built up a variety of support systems to keep him on the straight and narrow.

It was a nice story, but it didn’t get much play until the Cincinnati Reds General Manager Wayne Krivsky worked out a deal with the Cubs to acquire Hamilton in the Rule 5 Draft. All the sudden, he went from a once-prospect trying to get his career back on track to a wild card who had a shot to make the major league roster. Manager Jerry Narron decided early on that Hamilton would get every chance to make the team, giving him more plate appearances this spring than any other Reds hitter.

Hamilton didn’t disappoint. His spring training debut featured a home run that cleared the batters’ eye in center field, and he went on to have a blistering March, hitting .403/.457/.556, all the while playing excellent defense. He easily made the club as a fourth outfielder, but as the season got underway and the Reds’ offense struggled, Hamilton’s continued hot hitting eventually allowed him to take over the starting center field job. While his batting average (.267) and on-base percentages (.344) have slipped a bit after his hot start, Hamilton still leads all NL rookies with eight home runs, and is currently slugging a very impressive .534.

At 131 plate appearances, it’s still too early to tell what sort of season, much less career, Hamilton will end up having. Nevertheless, we can learn some things about the sort of hitter he is from these data. First, let’s look at his year-to-date stats (through May 16):

 PA   %K   %BB   %LD   HR/F  BABIP   AVG   OBP   SLG   ISO   OPS   PrOPS   wOBA    RC   WPA
131  18%   10%   23%    26%   .274  .267  .344  .534  .267  .878    .974   .372    22  0.33

It’s easily the most impressive line of any rookie hitter so far this season. Hamilton seems to be a guy who hits a lot of line drives, walks at a good clip, and possesses excellent power. Furthermore, he may have been a bit unlucky! JC Bradbury’s PrOPS indicates that his OPS should be almost 100 points higher than it actually is. Hamilton’s spectacular line drive percentage predicts an BABIP of ~.350, yet he currently has a below-average BABIP of .274. If we do a thought exercise and add three singles to his record to push his BABIP up to .310, his line would improve to a superb .293/.366/.560, with a .393 wOBA. Not bad for a guy who hadn’t played more than a few games above A-ball prior to this season.

A look at his home hitting chart at MLB.com shows more evidence of Hamilton’s maturity as a hitter:

image

Hamilton has excellent power to all fields. In fact, while he does tend to pull ground balls, he hits a lot of fly balls to left and left-center, including two that left the park. Nevertheless, when he does pull the ball and manages to get it into the air, he punishes it. Clearly, Hamilton is not a one-trick pony, but can hurt you in a variety of ways with his bat.

In addition to his outstanding offensive production, Hamilton has proven to be an asset in the field as well. He flashes a strong and accurate arm, already racking up three outfield assists on the season. He has been competent in center field, posting a Zone Rating of .849. While that does rank him slightly below average compared to qualified CF’s this season, it is quite an improvement compared to Ken Griffey Jr’s performance the last several seasons. Nevertheless, he may be a better fit for right field–when he has had the opportunity to play there this season, he has posted a ZR of .900, which would rank him 4th in the league if he had enough innings to qualify.

If there’s a weakness to Hamilton’s game, it’s his ability to hit left-handers. So far this season, he has managed to get on base against lefties at a fair clip, but has shown minimal power against them, hitting .256/.333/.610 against righties, but .258/.343/.323 against lefties. The Reds are aware of this and have limited his exposure to tough left-handers so far this season, even when it means starting Norris Hopper in his stead. As the season wears on and he gains experience, look for Hamilton to be left in more and more often against tough southpaws.

The other item of concern as we look forward to the rest of the season is his walk rate, which was off the charts when the season started, but has steadily declined as the season has moved. He has talked in the local media about being overly aggressive at the plate in recent days, but whether this trend will reverse itself or simply stabilize is an open question (figure courtesy of fangraphs):

image

Outlook

Hamilton has been a revelation thus far. But will he be able to keep it up? The statistics show that he may have actually been a bit unlucky this season, so there aren’t many warning signs of imminent decline, save for the alarming and steady drop in his walk rate. At the same time, pitchers around the league are still learning how to get him out, and there may be holes in his swing that can be exploited. Nevertheless, the blend of on-base ability, power, speed, and defensive skills that he has displayed thus far is remarkably similar to what scouts were projecting that he would produce when he was drafted first overall over a half-decade ago, indicating that this might all be real. If Hamilton can continue to stay sober, and continue to adapt as the league learns about his skills, he has a chance to be an outstanding player for many years to come.

References & Resources
Dave Sheinin’s Washington Post article

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