Josh Hamilton's first season with the Angels was an unmitigated disaster. The once-fearsome slugger brought his free-swinging ways out west, but he ended up doing more flailing than anything else. He hit .250/.307/.432, struck out in nearly a quarter of his plate appearances and homered just 21 times despite playing in 151 games. It was, by far, the worst season of his career.
If the Angels are going to shake off their supremely disappointing 2013, Hamilton will have to play a crucial role in the rebound. He has the benefit of having all-universe talent Mike Trout on his team, and he's just one year removed from destroying baseballs with the Rangers. However, Hamilton turns 33 years old in May, and he simply may never again be the intimidating middle-of-the-order bat he was as recently as 2012. In the penultimate entry in our Burning Questions series, we ask if Hamilton can reclaim his pre-Los Angeles self.
Heading into 2013, Hamilton had hit 43, 32 and 32 home runs in the three previous seasons in which he'd played at least 130 games. Last year, he posted his second-highest totals for games and plate appearances but also finished with the fewest bombs in a season in which he qualified for the batting title. The explanation for such a precipitous decline is usually in the batted-ball rates, and that is the case with Hamilton. Nearly all of his rates when putting the ball in play last season were right in line with his career numbers. He had a 22.2-percent line-drive rate (just above his career rate of 21.6 percent), a 38.9-percent ground-ball rate (41.1 percent for his career) and a 38.9-percent fly-ball rate (37.3 percent).
A power hitter like Hamilton needs to keep his line-drive rate and, more importantly, his fly-ball rate up if he's going to provide his usual fantasy value. While he did that last year, the makeup of those fly balls was drastically different. Hamilton posted a 12.7-percent HR/FB ratio and a career-high 6.6-percent popup rate, and therein lies the explanation for his paltry 21 home runs. When Hamilton put the ball in the air, he did it weaker than ever before. Unfortunately for him and the Angels, there's little reason to believe that he can turn it around in 2014.
First of all, pitchers know they do not have to throw him a strike to get him out. For the third consecutive season, Hamilton swung at a minimum of 41 percent of the pitches he saw outside the strike zone last year. As long as he keeps that up, he's going to make more than his fair share of weak contact. He also had a 16.2-percent swinging-strike rate in 2013. The more strikeouts he has, the fewer balls he puts in play, and the fewer chances he has to improve his rates or get back to his 30-homer days.
The fly balls Hamilton did hit in 2013 traveled much shorter distances than they had at any other point in his career. His average fly ball distance last season was 273.49 feet, which ranked 209th in the majors, just behind Daniel Descalso, Michael Bourn and Norichika Aoki, among others. His average home run distance was 400.9 feet. That seems impressive, and to a certain degree, it is. However, when compared to his career numbers, it's easy to see just how far Hamilton fell last year. Since becoming an everyday major leaguer in 2008, his average home run distance was at least 410.5 feet every year until last year. That means his average home run in 2013 was 2.3 percent shorter than his previous career low. That isn't just a one-year drop that can be easily recovered. That's the sign of a player who has lost some of his power.
Hamilton's high strikeout rate and low walk rate make him a liability for both batting average and OBP. Nearly all of his fantasy value is tied up in his ability to provide big-time power numbers. If he's not hitting 30 homers and driving in 100 runs, he's just another run-of-the-mill third outfielder.
All the evidence from last season suggests that Hamilton cannot be counted upon to put up the home run and RBI totals that made him a fantasy superstar at the end of the last decade and beginning of this one. He is still getting plenty of respect from the fantasy community, though, as his average draft position is 75.8. That translates to selection early in the seventh round of a 12-team draft, in the same neighborhood as outfielders Jayson Werth, Jason Heyward and Alex Gordon as well as other players like Anibal Sanchez, Carlos Santana, Josh Donaldson and Jordan Zimmermann. Hamilton's ceiling may seem high for this point of the draft, but that ignores the harsh realities that were on display last season. Do not expect him to morph back into the player that terrorized the American League in a Rangers uniform.
MORE BURNING QUESTIONS:
• Part I: Can Starlin Castro bounce back in 2014?
• Part II: Is Masahiro Tanaka a worthwhile risk for owners?
• Part III: Should Doug Fister be considered a top pitcher?
• Part IV: Is Eric Hosmer a top-10 first baseman?
• Part V: How will Chris Davis follow up his successful 2013?
• Part VI: Will Brandon Phillips rack up 100+ RBI again?
• Part VII: What can owners expect from Josh Donaldson?
• Part VIII: Is Hanley Ramirez worth the risk of injury?
• Part IX: Can Josh Hamilton rediscover his power stroke?
• Part X: How should owners value Javier Baez, George Springer?