Man on Fire
Tuesday night, Josh Hamilton hit four home runs. In one game. I’m quite certain you knew this, but I felt I needed to add that second sentence, which wasn’t a complete sentence, to emphasize the point made in the first sentence. Four home runs in one game has now been achieved 16 times in MLB history, which is more rare than a perfect game. So rare, in fact, that Ben Lindbergh of Baseball Prospectus calculated just last week that the odds of a player of Albert Pujols’ talent hitting four home runs in a game was approximately 1 in 10,000, or 0.01%. According to the National Weather Service, this is about the same odds that you will be struck by lightning in your lifetime. Considering how few players have Albert Pujols-like talent, it is not surprising that only 16 players have accomplished the feat, even though there have been more than 200,000 MLB games played.
While the odds are still the same as being struck by lightning (literally), it is of perhaps a lesser surprise that it was Josh Hamilton who hit four home runs compared to any other player in Major League Baseball right now. Hamilton has begun the 2012 season on fire (notice the call back to the title of this article which is also a very popular 2004 Denzel Washington movie, and is also the hashtag I have used on Twitter to describe Hamilton). Even before Hamilton’s four home run night, he was hitting .376 with 10 home runs and an OPS of 1.138 in 26 games. In the AL, those marks ranked as 3rd, 1st, and 1st, respectively. After Tuesday night, Hamilton is now 1st in all three categories in the AL, as well as RBI for those of you who needed a Triple Crown update.
The last four players to hit four home runs in a game were Carlos Delgado (2003), Shawn Green (2002), Mike Cameron (2002), and Mark Whiten (1993).
Prior to his four homer game, Delgado was hitting .298 with a .992 OPS, and had hit 3 home runs in his last 26 games.
Prior to his, Shawn Green was hitting .238 with a .740 OPS, and had hit 2 home runs in his last 26 games.
Prior to his, Mike Cameron was hitting .242 with a .845 OPS, and had hit 4 home runs in his last 26 games.
Prior to his, Mark Whiten was hitting .248 with a .720 OPS, and had hit 2 home runs in his last 26 games.
Of the last 5 players to hit four home runs in a game, Hamilton was by far the “most likely” to do so. He is a special player on one of those streaks that make you scratch your head and wonder “just what CAN’T this guy do?”
In fact, Hamilton is in the middle of the hottest 27-game stretch of his career. Which seems obvious, because a four home run game can go a long way to making a 27-game stretch extraordinary. For grins, I also looked at 26 games stretches in Hamilton’s career. If you remove Tuesday’s game, the 26 games to start the 2012 season for Hamilton would rank as his 3rd-best 26-game section of games, falling just shy of a 10 HR/.367 AVG/1.142 OPS stint in 2008 and a 11 HR/.439 AVG/1.319 OPS run in 2010. But certainly, after Tuesday, Hamilton is on the best hot streak of his career. Also noteworthy – in 2008 Hamilton played the most games in a season in his career, and in 2010 he won the American League MVP.
I am going to commit one paragraph to thinking longer term about Hamilton. That is this paragraph. Hamilton is playing out of his mind, just like many athletes do in their contract year. However, it is important to point out that how Hamilton has played in the first 27 games of 2012 should have had no impact on how you feel about the benefits or risks of re-signing Hamilton to a long-term deal during or after this season. Personally, I think Hamilton is going to receive, and has every right to receive, a contract that is much larger than I would be comfortable giving to him if I were the Rangers. Many throw out a Jayson Werth contract comparison, which was 7 years and $126 million (which is probably high, I would guess he signs something closer to 6 years, $115 million). Hamilton is a unique and special talent with a complete arsenal of all five tools, and when he is in the lineup he changes the game. He’s an MVP-caliber player, and there is no denying that. MVP-caliber players are special. However, Hamilton will turn 31 years old in 2 weeks, and has a well-documented injury history that has left him averaging 125 games played per season over the last 4 years. He is too big, too fast, and too brittle for me to have any confidence that he will be able to produce enough value over a 5-6 year contract for it to be worth it for the team that signs him.
That last paragraph is not the point to focus on, for now. It is only May, and as Rangers fans we are witnessing one of the great hitters of our generation display the firepower he has when he is a fully armed and operational battlestation (Star Wars reference, folks). Hamilton will slow down at some point this year, which is fine, because Nelson Cruz and Mike Napoli will step it up. The Rangers offense will continue to produce at an elite level. For now, Hamilton is the driver, the cog, and the Natural in the lineup. He has truly been a man on fire.