Jay Jaffe tackles the return of Josh Hamilton to a hot-hitting Rangers team rising up the standings and Craig Kimbrel's struggles for the moribund Padres in today's Hit and Run.
1. Hamilton returns while Rangers ride a hot streak
Four weeks after the trade that returned him to the Rangers was officially completed, Josh Hamilton made his 2015 major league debut. While he went hitless in four plate appearances against the Indians in Cleveland, the surprisingly resilient Rangers won their sixth straight game, and his return offers the team a chance to shore up one of its weakest spots.
Hamilton's performance was not particularly auspicious. He went 0-for-3 with a pair of strikeouts and misplayed a Jason Kipnis line drive into an RBI double, but he did contribute to four-run third-inning rally that turned a 5–3 deficit to a 7–5 advantage, working a six-pitch walk off Shaun Marcum and coming around to score on an Elvis Andrus double. Though the Indians later tied the game, the Rangers wound up winning, 10–8, to improve to 22–23, the closest they've been to .500 since April 17, when they were 5–6.
Acquired from the Angels in what was more or less a straight salary dump after an arbitrator ruled that he could not be suspended for self-reporting a substance-abuse relapse, the 34-year-old Hamilton underwent surgery on the acromioclavicular joint in his right shoulder in early February. He likely would have returned to the field earlier had Los Angeles not worked so tirelessly to prevent him from doing so.
On a 12-game rehab assignment split between Double A Frisco and Triple A Round Rock, Hamilton hit a combined .364/.391/.545 with five doubles and a homer in 46 plate appearances. After a slow start, he went 14-for-31 with all six of his extra-base hits and just five strikeouts over his final eight games. The Rangers are hoping he can recapture at least some of the magic from his 2008–12 stretch with Texas, a span during which he hit .305/.363/.549 (137 OPS+) and earned All-Star honors in five straight seasons. Signed to a five-year, $125 million deal with the Angels, Hamilton hit just .255/.316/.426 for a 110 OPS+ with 31 homers and 2.9 WAR in his two seasons in Anaheim, a performance for which the Angels will pay a net $105 million.
Though he moved to rightfield to replace Shin-soo Choo in the ninth inning, Hamilton will likely serve as the Rangers' primary leftfielder once he's fully up to speed. Including his 0-fer, the six players who have appeared in leftfield for Texas—primarily Carlos Peguero, Jake Smolinski and Delino DeShields Jr.—have hit a combined .200/.306/.355; remarkably, their .661 OPS ranks ninth in the league, with five teams under .600.
In an irony that's hopefully not lost on Arte Moreno, one of those teams is Los Angeles, whose leftfield replacements for Hamilton are scraping by at a .176/.241/.255 clip with one homer. The Angels are just 23–22 this year, one game ahead of the Rangers in the AL West standings, and their offense is wheezing by at 3.80 runs per game. By contrast, thanks to an outburst that has produced at least 10 runs in three of their last four games, the Rangers are up to 4.58 per game, fifth in the league. Where they averaged 3.57 per game in April while going 7–14, they're at 5.46 per game this month while going 15–9.
What's particularly encouraging for the Rangers is that after missing three-quarters of last season before undergoing cervical fusion surgery, Prince Fielder is hitting .365/.417/.575 with nine homers; he leads the league in batting average and is fourth in OPS+ at 174. After dreadful April showings, Adrian Beltre and Choo have been productive in May, combining for 10 home runs while hitting .307/.324/.485 and .308/.354/.587, respectively. Mitch Moreland (.309/.374/.521) has hit well in a platoon capacity, and the early returns on Rule 5 pick DeShields (.278/.394/.392 with 11 steals in 12 attempts) have been promising. That said, the offense still has its laggards, as the team's second basemen have combined to hit .181/.270/.316 and both Andrus (.236/.293/.309) and Leonys Martin (.216/.257/.317) have struggled.
That the Rangers are anywhere close to .500 is particularly impressive in light of a rotation that lost Yu Darvish to Tommy John surgery and Derek Holland to a shoulder strain and still hasn't gotten back Matt Harrison and Martin Perez, who are trying to work their way back from 2014 surgeries. Yovani Gallardo has been only so-so (4.13 ERA, 4.18 FIP), but Colby Lewis (3.49 ERA, 3.35 FIP) and Wandy Rodriguez (3.38 ERA, 3.60 FIP) are back from the brink of sub-replacement-level oblivion. Nick Martinez (1.96 ERA, 4.02 FIP) has ridden a .266 BABIP and 7.9 runs per game of offensive support to a team record of 8–1 in his nine starts. Not all of this may be sustainable, but after last year's 67–95 nightmare, this year's squad, under new manager Jeff Banister, is at least relevant again.
2. Kimbrel’s woes not Padres’ biggest concern
Speaking of the Angels—at least briefly—they enjoyed a 4–3 walk-off win against the Padres on Monday when Albert Pujols drove in the winning run after Mike Trout was intentionally walked to load the bases. On paper, it was a sensible decision, given that Trout is hitting .299/.392/.551 and Pujols just .228/.280/.420; the latter was in an 0-for-11 slump, which contributed to Padres manager Bud Black's difficult decision.
The fateful hit was given up by Padres closer Craig Kimbrel, who didn't enter the game until the potential winning run reached third base with one out; in a tie game on the road, Black started the inning with Kevin Quackenbush on the mound instead of his closer. While he wasn't charged with a loss, since the run was Quackenbush's, the reality is that Kimbrel has been getting knocked around lately. Since starting the year with six straight scoreless innings, he's been scored upon in seven of his last 12 outings, taking a loss, blowing a save and letting in the winning run along the way. His ERA is currently a beefy 5.63, roughly quadruple his career mark of 1.41 coming into the year.
Is it time to panic? A closer look at Kimbrel's numbers suggests that's premature. His per-nine strikeout and walk rates (13.5 and 3.4, respectively) are in line with last year's numbers (13.5 and 3.8), as are his velocity and other PITCHf/x numbers. His woes point to bad luck or unfortunate sequencing—he’s been seared for a .389 BABIP and three homers allowed in just 16 innings, compared to two in 61 2/3 innings last year. His rate of home runs per fly ball is 25.0%, more than triple his career mark of 7.7%, with a 1.17 groundball-to-flyball ratio that is identical to last year's mark. Both his 3.71 FIP and 2.31 xFIP suggest he hasn't pitched nearly as badly as his ERA indicates; the latter is nearly a ringer for last year's 2.24. It's also worth noting that all three homers allowed came in games where he successfully converted saves.
At 21–25 with a -14 run differential and a seven-game deficit in the NL West, the Padres at this juncture look a whole lot like last year's model despite their big offseason overhaul—they were 21–25 with a -15 run differential and seven games back at the same point in 2014. While they have plenty to be concerned about with regards to Wil Myers' wrist, the lack of production from Matt Kemp and the left side of their infield (including shortstop-for-a-day Will Middlebrooks), and the 6.11 ERAs of starters Ian Kennedy and Odrisamer Despaigne, Kimbrel isn't high on the list.
Still, the hot seat on which Black sits won’t be made any cooler by his decision backfiring. It wouldn’t be a surprise if he soon pays the price for his team’s sluggish start.