Wednesday September 10th, 2014

Winners of six straight, 12 of their last 14, and 21 of their last 27, the Angels are running away with the AL West race. But lately, they've been doing it without Josh Hamilton, who has missed the team's past five games due to right shoulder discomfort, a problem that has lingered to the point that manager Mike Scioscia has expressed concern over his leftfielder’s lack of improvement. And while the Angels have fared well without him, their chances at going deep into the postseason are stronger with him in the lineup.

What are the biggest weaknesses for MLB's division-leading teams?

Hamilton has played in just 88 games this year, missing most of April — all but the team's first eight games — and all of May due to a torn ulnar collateral ligament in his left thumb that required surgery. The 33-year-old has hit just .263/.331/.415; his slugging percentage and .152 isolated power are career lows, and his 10 homers match his career low, set in an 89-game season with the Rangers in 2009. His numbers look even worse if you subtract his torrid line from before he injured his thumb (.444/.545/.741 with two homers in eight games), as he's hit just .247/.310/.386 in 345 plate appearances since returning.

Taking his season of work as a whole and adjusting for the lower-scoring environment of Anaheim circa 2014, Hamilton's 114 OPS+ is better than he managed both in that shortened 2009 season (90) and last year’s debut with the Angels (108) thanks to a relatively solid 8.5 percent walk rate (his career mark is 8.2 percent). Even so, he's striking out with such frequency (28.6 percent of the time, up from a career mark of 21.3 percent) that this 3.4 strikeout-to-walk ratio is a career worst.

As Cliff Corcoran noted a few weeks back, Hamilton fell into such a deep slump in early August that he asked out of the lineup. He had struck out in 18 of his previous 42 plate appearances while managing just two walks, two doubles and a .398 OPS over that stretch. At the time, he conceded that his problems had a lot to do with his mental state, but then anybody who has followed the ups and downs of Hamilton’s career is familiar with that refrain. He's capable of MVP-caliber performances when everything is going right, and he has the hardware to prove it. But at times he can disappear so completely that his face — or at least his swing — should be on the side of a milk carton.

Joe Torre's memo on Rule 7.13 interpretation has immediate impact

After sitting for two games, Hamilton returned to the lineup and recovered some of his power, batting .261/.302/.478 with two homers, four doubles and just seven strikeouts in his final 53 plate appearances of the month. But he left the team's Sept. 4 game in the eighth inning due to soreness in the acromioclavicular joint of his right (non-throwing) shoulder. He received a cortisone shot after the game, and after sitting out two games, Scioscia wrote his name into the lineup on Sunday, but he was scratched following batting practice, as his problem had spread to his trapezius muscle. On Monday, he received trigger-point injections to loosen up knots in his neck. Prior to Hamilton missing a fifth straight game on Tuesday, Scioscia expressed his concern. Via's Alden Gonzalez:

"When you're in a pennant race, these guys are out there and they're playing banged up, and for Josh not to be playing, he's hurting… He'd be out here if it was something he could play through. There's a concern with that."

…"[A]t first blush when he was getting worked on, it didn't look like it was going in the right direction."

At the moment, it would appear that the Angels can get by without Hamilton. In the five games he's missed, they've banged out a whopping 50 runs against the Twins, Indians and Rangers, gaining three games on the sinking Athletics. At 89-55, they're up a season-high eight games in the AL West, a 12-game swing in the standings dating back to the close of play on Aug. 10. Scioscia has used four different starting leftfielders over that five-game span, with Collin Cowgill taking two starts and Brennan Boesch, Grant Green and Efren Navarro one apiece.

Of that group, Cowgill has received the most playing time with the Angels this year, batting .260/.333/.379 with five homers en route to a 106 OPS+. Underlying his rough approximation of Hamilton's post-thumb injury split, however, is a massive platoon differential; this year, the 28-year-old Cowgill has batted .217/.299/.283 in 136 PA against righties, .308/.373/.486 in 118 PA against lefties, and for his career, he's got a gap of 241 points of OPS (.774 versus lefties, .533 versus righties) in virtually equal playing time. Hence Scioscia's continued search for platoon options in lefties Boesch (who's just 6-for-43 overall) and Navarro (.258/.317/.352 in 144 PA).

From busts to best: The failed starters who became shutdown relievers

Going merely by won-loss record, the team has performed slightly better with Hamilton in the lineup (55-33, .625) than without (34-22, .607), but they’ve struggled for production from his spot when he's been unavailable. The seven players who have filled in have batted a combined .219/.260/.306 as leftfielders, and while the worst of them (J.B. Shuck and Raul Ibanez) are now playing elsewhere, the numbers don't reach acceptability (.266/.292/.362) if you exclude that pair. That said, the gap is closed somewhat by the fact that Cowgill has the best defensive numbers (+10 Defensive Runs Saved across all three positions) among the Angels' outfielders, while Hamilton has been average.

Leaving aside the fact that they still owe $83 million for 2015-17 to a player who has given them just 3.1 Wins Above Replacement over the past two seasons, the Angels' lead is wide enough that they can be patient with Hamilton's current woes. With rosters expanded, there's no need to DL him, and Scioscia can continue to mix and match in search of alternatives instead of relying upon just one player.

Even playing half their games in a park that reduces scoring by about five percent, the Angels’ 4.84 runs per game scored is the league's top mark, and their regulars have produced a 100 OPS+ or better at every position except third base, where David Freese (97 OPS+) has been close enough; meanwhile, Mike Trout, Albert Pujols, Kole Calhoun, C.J. Cron and Chris Iannetta are all above 120. They have enough bats to pick up the slack, but even with Hamilton only intermittently showing himself to be a threat on par with his Texas days, his history and upside suggest the Angels' chances of winning are better with him than without him.

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.