Hamilton, Rangers looking historic
On the same night Josh Hamilton smashed two home runs against the Angels he also dove headlong into first base just as many times. The game last Friday represented a good snapshot of why Hamilton is the most compelling player in baseball today: he takes your breath away, whether admiring his talent or fearing he can't hold up.
The Texas Rangers' outfielder is a modern day Mickey Mantle, a supreme combination of power and speed with an underlying fragility caused by injuries and personal demons. How good he can be is only a matter of how long he can hold up.
"We've tried to get him to stop," teammate Michael Young said of Hamilton's ill-advised dives into first base. "But that's Josh. He doesn't know any other way, so we've come to live with it. I said it when he got here in 2008 and it's true today: He's the most talented player in the game. It's not like what he's doing now is a fluke. I hate to say this, but I don't even look at this as a hot streak. This is just what he's capable of."
Hamilton hit 18 home runs in Texas' first 34 games. You have to go all the way back to Cy Williams of the 1923 Phillies to find anyone who started a season with so many home runs so quickly. In a 14-game hitting streak, Hamilton has hit .396 with 10 home runs and 25 RBIs. Hamilton looks so scary right now that Angels pitcher C.J. Wilson, his former teammate, tweeted, "He might break bonds record this year, no joke." As much as it lacked in grammar, the observation rang with some truth. The Triple Crown, which no one has claimed since 1967, also becomes a legitimate possibility. Teammate David Murphy, while conceding the season has run just one-fourth of its course, admitted the early vibe is that something "historic" may be in the offing.
With Hamilton at the peak of his game, the Rangers, too, have the look of a team that may be historic. Texas is destroying American League competition. This could be the best team since the 1998 Yankees. It has no weakness. The Rangers have scored the most runs and allowed the fewest in the league. In the third year of a run-scoring recession around baseball, the Rangers are hammering teams. They have outscored opponents by 2.2 runs per game. The next closest team in the league, Toronto, has a run differential of only 0.6.
How are the Rangers doing it? Here are the most important reasons:
• Under pitching coach Mike Maddux, the Rangers have improved their ERA and strikeout rate for four consecutive seasons. Maddux, backed by the influence of president Nolan Ryan, has shown a knack for solving the most important mission in today's game: keeping young pitchers healthy and throwing strikes. Texas pitchers have walked the second-fewest batters in the league and are tied with the Mariners for the throwing the highest percentage of strikes. Its starters haven't missed a start due to injury in two years.
• The Rangers defy the trend of playing platoon matchup with pitchers. They have assembled both a rotation and a bullpen that can get out righties and lefties. They have the best ERA in the league while gaining the smallest percentage of platoon advantages in batter-pitcher matchups (35 percent).
• They have a phenomenal clubhouse culture. The Rangers are loaded with high-character gamers with big-game experience in the prime of their careers, reminiscent of recent Phillies teams or the great Yankees teams of the late '90s. Texas is 10-2 after losses entering its game Tuesday night.
• The Rangers are an aggressive offensive team. Texas has no use for the postmodern passive-aggressive approach of taking pitches and running up pitch counts. The league average on first-pitch hitting is .322. The Rangers crush first pitches at a .406 clip with the most such hits in the league. Only Tampa Bay swings more often at first pitches and only Detroit swings at more strikes. No team looks at strike three less often. Hamilton, who swings early and often -- and not always at strikes -- typifies their approach.
• The same attitude applies to the basepaths. Last Friday the Angels threw at Ian Kinsler, presumably because Craig Gentry ran with Texas up 8-2 in the third. Two innings later, manager Ron Washington put the hold on Gentry with the score 9-3. But one of the Rangers reminded Washington that the Angels' Mike Trout stole a base down 9-2. Washington removed the red light and Gentry took off running. "If they're going to try to cut into the lead, we're going to try to add on," said one Ranger. "Simple as that." Only Chicago and Oakland attempted more steals at the start of this week.
• The Rangers added a 25-year-old ace without having to trade any players. Yu Darvish, brought over from Japan during the offseason, has been a revelation, and not just because his pitching is superb. Darvish is a team player, a guy who stands on the top step during his starts and understands enough English and Spanish to communicate with teammates. Teammates were impressed immediately with Darvish's competitive streak, but were blown away by how adamant Darvish was about returning to the mound after a two-hour rain delay last Friday. (His opposing pitcher, Wilson, did not.) Because he has multiple strikeout pitches, because he can beat teams with different looks and because he is a ferocious competitor with a ridiculously high pitching IQ, Darvish looks more like the next Pedro Martinez than anybody else.
• Hamilton is a transcendent player. A favorite among the many insane stats about him: he hit 40 fly balls through Sunday; 18 of them flew out of the park. He makes Major League Baseball look like Little League, when that one kid who is bigger and better than everybody else simply dominates and makes the field look small.
So much of what Hamilton will do this year will be seen through the prism of his next contract. But that's just media speculation and barstool oratory for now. The Rangers will wait until November to put contract terms in front of Hamilton. That means we still have 75 percent of the season to appreciate him -- and to hold our breath. He turns 31 next week and has played one full season in his major league life.
About this time last year Jose Reyes looked like the National League MVP and someone who was going to get Carl Crawford money. The injury-prone Reyes went down again with a balky hamstring. He wound up getting just three-quarters of Crawford money.
Understand this: Hamilton will get more than $20 million a year, with the intrigue involving how many guaranteed years he gets into his late 30s. When I talked to him after his four-homer game in Baltimore, I was struck by how clearly he wanted to deliver the message that he can play anywhere -- that his support system is not something unique to playing in Texas.
By now, upon seeing contracts of 10 or more years dished out to Alex Rodriguez, Albert Pujols, Joey Votto and the like, you also have to understand that for superstar players teams write off any semblance of value in the back end of a deal just for the opportunity to secure the player. Teams don't really believe such hitters will be worth $25 million as they near or pass age 40. But contract length is simply a tool to secure the player and to amortize the total investment by reducing the annual average value applied to competitive balance tax calculations. Whether a player is "worth" the money is not based on their actual performance toward the end of the deal. The Rangers will face the same calculus with Hamilton's value.
Unless the money is not in the same ballpark, as it happened for Pujols with the Cardinals and Angels, Hamilton will know that he won't find a franchise in a better competitive position than Texas. Its huge local TV deal hasn't even kicked in yet. The team is only now starting to maximize gate revenues (11 sellouts this year; as many as all of last season) and holds four starting pitchers ages 24-26 (Darvish, Derek Holland, Neftali Feliz and Matt Harrison) for at least 20 years of combined control at no more than $11 million per season for any one. The entire infield (Mitch Moreland, Kinsler, Elvis Andrus and Adrian Beltre) is controlled through 2014.
Dynasties aren't what they once were for many reasons, especially with the advent of expanded playoffs in 1995. And now a fourth layer of playoffs, the wild card knockout round, is added this season. But within this era of expanded playoffs we have seen runs of greatness. The Braves begat the Yankees, who begat the Phillies, who appear to be handing off to the Rangers.
Texas has never won the World Series, so it still has much work to do. But for now, the Rangers have become the best team in baseball with the most compelling player.