Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) -
The problem with Josh Hamilton, like many players, is that he peaked too early. But I'm not talking about April or May. Hamilton peaked two years ago.
The Los Angeles Angels slugger has been a shell of his former self, hitting just .216 with three homers since the All-Star break. The slump has gotten so bad that Hamilton voluntarily took himself out of the lineup Sunday so he could "take a step back."
With only a month and a half left in the season, the panic meter is running high. Can the struggling Hamilton pull his weight for the final 30+ games or should fantasy owners be looking elsewhere? To answer that properly, we need to find what's been ailing the five-time All-Star. After looking at stats and watching game film, here's what I discovered.
Patience isn't one of Hamilton's strong suits. Even when he blasted 43 homers in 2012, Hamilton still swung at plenty of bad pitches. That year he chased 45.4 percent of pitches outside the strike zone. For a former MVP and No. 1 pick, Hamilton's plate discipline has always been unusually poor.
But that's not why Hamilton is giving fantasy owners fits. Hamilton's main challenge is making contact. His 61.7 percent contact rate this season is embarrassingly low for a hitter of his caliber.
Strikeouts have plagued Hamilton in the past but never like this. In 102 second half at bats, Hamilton has punched out 40 times. His 35.6 percent strikeout rate for the season is worse than fellow free swingers Chris Carter (33.8) and Adam Dunn (35.4).
Hamilton has often cited poor eyesight as a reason for his struggles. That complaint may be valid, but why didn't it affect him in 2010 when he won the MVP? Manager Mike Scioscia says it's an issue of confidence and he could be right.
Hamilton missed 48 games earlier this season after tearing the ulnar collateral ligament in his left thumb. That's not easy to come back from. Bryce Harper suffered the same injury and has hit so poorly in his return (.224, 5 HR, 13 RBI in 143 at bats) that the Nationals briefly considered demoting him to Triple-A. Dustin Pedroia hurt his thumb at the start of the 2013 season and has never regained his power (one home run every 37.6 at bats before the injury, one home run every 80.3 at bats since). Given the injury, it's no surprise Hamilton is only on pace for 11 homers this year.
In The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy famously quipped, "I have a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore." Well guess what, Josh? We're not in Arlington anymore.
It's fair to wonder if Hamilton ever deserved to be called a superstar in the first place. His gaudy numbers in Texas may have just come from playing half his games at Globe Life Park, one of the most hitter-friendly stadiums in all of baseball. Even with the Rangers struggling this year, Globe Life has the fourth-highest park factor in the major leagues. Overall, the stadium has ranked in the top-six in park factor four of the last five seasons.
Though not a pitcher's park per se, Angel Stadium isn't the easiest place to hit a home run, especially if you're left-handed. The right center field wall is 18 feet high, much taller than the puny eight-foot fences at Globe Life. Anaheim has ranked 19th or worse in park factor every year since 2010 including 24th this season.
As a result, Hamilton has homered once every 39.7 at bats in Anaheim compared to once every 16.0 in Texas. Hamilton's batting average is also 70 points higher at Globe Life Park (.316 in Texas, .246 in Anaheim).
Even the best hitters fall into bad habits. Hamilton is no exception. I compared Hamilton's hitting mechanics in last week's game against the Dodgers to a 2012 game versus Boston.
Going up against Red Sox reliever Mark Melancon, Hamilton's stance featured a distinctive leg kick. Using the leg kick, Hamilton took Melancon deep for a 469-foot home run to right center field. Against Dodgers lefty Hyun-Jin Ryu, Hamilton's knee was bent at a similar angle to the one we saw in 2012 but his leg kick was far less exaggerated.
Hamilton's posture was different too. In 2012, he was leaning in while in 2014 he was standing almost perfectly upright. On several occasions against Ryu, it seemed like the rigid stance made Hamilton's momentum shift away from the baseball. When that happens, you're relying almost entirely on your upper body to generate power. Before, when Hamilton was leaning in and using a leg kick, he was getting his whole body behind the ball.
The leg kick not only gives Hamilton more power, but as we've seen with Jose Bautista and countless other hitters, it can also be used as a timing mechanism. Ryu's fastball, topping out at 94 mph on August 7, is potent but not unhittable. Yet Hamilton had great difficulty keeping up with it. Even on the few occasions he did make contact, Hamilton didn't get much strength behind it, hitting a weak ground out to second base and a flyout to center field. If Hamilton doesn't fix his swing quickly, he could be a liability when the Angels compete in October.
Former Boston Celtics coach Rick Pitino once remarked, "Larry Bird's not walking through that door." Well neither is the Josh Hamilton we saw in Texas. That player is gone for good.