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« Ryan Dempster Can Handle the American League | Main | Josh Hamilton: Angelic Power, Devilish Approach »
Friday
Dec142012

Can Hamilton Handle the Heat?

Josh Hamilton displayed even more of a "grip it and rip it" style than usual last season, hitting a career-high 43 home runs but also striking out in 25.5% of his plate appearances, up from 17.3% in 2011. While the extra whiffs didn't keep Hamilton from raking, his marked increase in Ks is worth discussing considering that the 32-year-old is entering what is typically the early decline phase of a player's career. A closer look at his whiffs reveals a surprising question: Can Hamilton handle the heat?

I'm not asking whether the former Rangers slugger can deal with the scrutiny that inevitably comes with inking a deal that pays him the second-highest annual salary in baseball history. Rather, I'm asking whether Hamilton's lightning-quick bat might be slowing. Here's a look at Hamilton's contact rate by pitch location against fastballs in 2011, and then in 2012:

Hamilton's contact rate vs. fastballs, 2011

Hamilton's contact rate vs. fastballs, 2012

He still connected against inside fastballs, but Hamilton came up empty more often versus middle-away heaters. Overall, Hamilton's fastball miss rate increased from 13.7% in 2011 to 24.6% in 2012. For comparison's sake, the MLB average over the past two seasons is about 16%.

Those extra swings and misses on fastballs didn't harm Hamilton when pitchers had below-average or average velocity. In fact, he actually did more damage against those lower-octane pitches in 2012 than in 2011. It was a different story when pitchers brought the heat, however. Hamilton's miss rate against premium gas (95+ miles per hour) more than quadrupled, from 8.4% to 37%. His slugging percentage cratered from .639 to .231:

 Hamilton in 2011 Hamilton in 2012 MLB Avg. for qualified hitters 
Fastball Speed Miss Rate Slugging Pct. Miss Rate Slugging Pct. Miss Rate Slugging Pct.
Under 90 MPH 19 .444 24.2 .558 13.2 .532
90-92 MPH 14.7 .696 21.9 .732 14.2 .521
93-94 MPH 13.5 .489 21.3 .571 16.1 .446
95+ MPH 8.4 .639 37 .231 20.2 .402

 

In 2011, Hamilton ranked tenth among qualified batters in slugging against 95+ MPH fastballs. This past year, he tied Ichiro and Gordon Beckham for the 16th-lowest slugging percentage versus those pitches. The only hitters to whiff more frequently when pitchers lit up the gun were Danny Espinosa, B.J. Upton, Adam Dunn and Chris Davis.

Even if Hamilton has indeed lost some bat speed, it's not like just any pitcher can exploit his weakness. Out of 282 starting pitchers who tossed a fastball in the majors last season, 110 (39%) reached 95 MPH at least once, and just nine (3.2%) averaged at least 95 MPH. Jason Vargas isn't going to read this and say, "huh, I think I'll just throw 95+ against Hamilton."

But it could become more of an issue in the late innings, when live-armed relievers take over. 226 out of 464 relievers (48.7%) hit 95 MPH on the gun at least once last year, and 40 (8.6%) averaged at least 95 MPH. Hamilton did turn into a mere mortal late in the game, with his on-base-plus slugging percentage in innings 7-9 declining from .863 in 2011 to .759 (the AL average is about .691).

Some of this is nitpicking, of course. Hamilton remains lethal at the dish, and a minority of pitchers is in a position to capitalize on his issues with top-shelf velocity. Still, keep an eye on Hamilton's bat speed -- it could be an important factor late in games and in October.

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