Is Josh Broken?

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Josh Hamilton is always a fun, yet exhausting character to examine. One day fans will find themselves praising his greatness and pleading on Twitter to #paytheman, and then the very next night fans will scream and curse at him to quit swinging at every pitch (or to stop flipping his bat into the stands). What is the real issue that is causing the prolonged slump at the plate for Hamilton? With the help of the new PITCHf/x hitter profile at Baseball Prospectus, the argument can be made that Josh hasn’t really changed his approach from April to his horrendous June. In fact, Josh has had nearly the same approach his entire career. For the sake of time and research, the focus will be on his production during April, in which he had a .395 BA, .406 OBP, and a 1.182 OPS compared to his horrid month of June: .223 BA, .318 OBP, .754 OPS. Josh struck out 17 times in April versus 35 times in the month of June. The two arguments most overheard by fans and writers are:

A:Josh is chasing pitches out of the zone
B:Pitchers are now throwing more pitches on the outer half or out of the zone
The first thing to examine is the pitch frequency for the two months because the pitch frequency will show where all the pitches were located that were thrown to Josh during these two months. (Using the awesome new feature at BP-PITCHf/x)April (pitch frequency-catcher’s pov)

Zones are from the Catcher’s POV.
June (pitch frequency):
Zones are from the Catcher’s POV.

Looking at these graphs, it is obvious that pitchers started throwing further and further away from Josh and took their chances on the outer half of the plate. Pitchers will always miss in the middle on occasion, and some of these locations are misses, but the scouting report was definitely to live on the outer half, which comes as no surprise. This chart shows that pitchers did in fact start throwing more pitches out of the zone and specifically the outer half, but this doesn’t really show how Josh handled or reacted to the changes in his scouting report. To see this, it’s necessary to examine the swing rate (or the number of times Josh swung at the aforementioned pitches). This should help determine if Josh is swinging at more pitches out of the zone or if he is just simply missing the same pitches he was crushing in April. 

Here is Josh’s swing rate in April:

There are a couple of things that are interesting when examining this graph. The first being that Josh swings at everything without prejudice (except for pitches way in, but those pitches are probably close to hitting him), but most fans via Twitter or people in the “real world” pointed this out or noticed this fact during the month of April. There was a common consensus that despite Josh swinging at everything, he is still hitting everything with authority. But, there was growing concern about what will happen when he goes cold and if he continues the same swing rate percentage. 

His swing rate in June:

Comparing the April and June graphs there are some fluctuations in his percentages, but Josh is consistent in his love for swinging the bat. Most fans have argued (me included) that Josh has been swinging at more pitches outside the zone during his cold stretch, but this information proves otherwise. There are some minor discrepancies, but overall the swing percentages are fairly even and consistent. The following table helps illustrate the point that Josh is taking more pitches in June than he did in April.

*Josh had 96 PA in April versus 107 in June
* O-Zone% are pitches thrown outside the strike zone. Z-zone% are pitches thrown inside the strike zone.
* O-Swing% are swings at O-Zone (insert pun) pitches. Z-Swing% are swings at Z-Zone pitches.

As you can see, pitchers threw Josh fewer pitches in the strike zone in June than they did in April, which is a normal plan of attack against any MVP caliber hitter, but what is most surprising is that Josh was swinging at a fewer percentage of pitches out side the zone (77% in April versus 63% in June) in the month of June. To the naked eye, it appeared that Josh was just swinging himself out of at bats throughout his slump, but according to these numbers, Josh was just missing pitches he was hitting in April. That may sound very elementary and obvious, but remember my goal was to refute the theory that he was swinging at everything and putting himself in bad situations because of his approach. I don’t know of any Ranger fan that will deny Hamilton swings at a lot of pitches, but that is his style-his MO, if you will. To ask Josh to change this would be like asking Neftali Feliz to stop throwing hard and could cause him to lose all super powers.

But before a conclusion can be drawn to the original question, we need to compare this to his career percentages and decide if this is an outlier or if his career averages are falling into place. Using information at Fangraphs (www.fangraphs.com), this table will help compare his career plate discipline numbers to 2012.

After looking, examining, and maybe hating all of this data, it is fairly clear that Josh Hamilton is not doing anything that is way out of line to his career numbers and tendencies. He is chasing a few more pitches outside of the zone than he normally does, but his overall swing percentage is on point. Pitchers are throwing more pitches outside of the zone, particularly up and away, than they did in April, but certainly they drift out there anytime Josh gets hot. The last question to answer is what has Josh done with all of these pitches that he is seeing? By using the true average (TAv) statistic we can compare these two months and get a good idea of his production at the plate in a more sophisticated manner than just looking at batting average. True average will factor in walks, the hitter’s home park, unintentional walk, etc to give a truer idea of the hitter’s production at the plate. (For a better definition of TAv, please follow this link: http://www.baseballprospectus.com/glossary/index.php?search=TAv)

April TAv

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June TAv
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The most telling information when looking at these graphs is Josh isn’t hitting the pitches up in the zone like he did in April. The pitchers are throwing nearly the same amount of pitchers there, Josh just isn’t hitting them. Secondly, he isn’t hitting pitches on the outer half. There are swing mechanics and timing issues also at play here, but the most obvious conclusion is that Josh isn’t hitting the same pitches he hit in April despite swinging at fewer pitches out of the zone.
While I wish Josh would take more pitches and hit mistakes, he has decreased his O-swing% in June, but just isn’t squaring the ball up like he did in April. The bottom line is: hitting isn’t easy!
Jeff Johnson is a Staff Writer for ShutDowninning. He can be reached on Twitter @Houstonhog
Jeff Johnson

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