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Entries in Texas Rangers (77)

Sunday
Jan062013

Lance Berkman: The Anti-Hamilton

Looking to add some punch to their lineup after losing Josh Hamilton to the division-rival Angels, the Rangers have reportedly signed his polar opposite at the plate. Lance Berkman will DH for Texas on a one-year, $10 million deal with a vesting option for the 2014 season, so long as his surgically-repaired right knee checks out. The 37-year-old  switch-hitter was limited to just 32 games last year, but his three-year OPS+ (139) is within shouting distance of Hamilton's (146). That's where the comparison ends, though, as the uber-patient Berkman and hacking Hamilton take far different approaches at the plate.

Take a look at Berkman and Hamilton's swing rates by pitch location since the beginning of the 2010 season. Berkman swung at cookies thrown down the middle and rarely ventured outside of the strike zone. Hamilton, meanwhile, swung at everything from El Paso to Texarkana:

Berkman's swing rate by pitch location, 2010-12

              

Hamilton's swing rate by pitch location, 2010-12

Berkman swung at lots of strikes (69.3% of pitches thrown over the plate, well above the 63.6% major league average) and took would-be balls, chasing just 21.4% of pitches thrown out of the zone (28.1% MLB average). Hamilton offered at a major league-high 81.6% of in-zone pitches over the 2010-12 seasons, but he also jumped at 38.8% of out-of-zone pitches (and was even jumpier last year).

The contrast is even greater when you look at how often the two swing at "non-competitive" pitches, which are those thrown at least 18 inches away from the center of the strike zone. Berkman has swung at such junk pitches 5.6% of the time, far below the 9.1% MLB average. Hamilton, meanwhile, has gone after such offerings 14.1% of the time.

How's that for irony: Having lost their star hacker to L.A., Texas' playoff hopes may now hinge on the play of their new anti-Hamilton. If Berkman can remain healthy and come anywhere near replicating Hamilton's production in 2013, the Rangers will be thrilled.

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.

Friday
Dec142012

Josh Hamilton: Angelic Power, Devilish Approach

Josh Hamilton, the Angels' new $125 million man, can look like Reggie Jackson and Reggie Abercrombie -- in the same at-bat. Hamilton boasts the 16th-best OPS+ among major league hitters since the beginning of the 2007 season, but he has reached such heights in spite of a plate approach that earns players lacking his prodigious power a one-way ticket to the Independent Leagues. When Hamilton swings at a strike, he's in a class all his own. But when he chases? Shield your eyes, Angels fans.

Here's a look at Hamilton's 2012 slugging percentage when swinging at a pitch thrown in the strike zone. In short, pitchers are doomed when he takes a cut at an in-zone offering:

Hamilton's slugging percentage when swinging at in-zone pitches, 2012

Hamilton had the best slugging percentage in the game when swinging at an in-zone pitch, and it wasn't even close. He bested runner-up and new teammate Mike Trout by over 100 points:

Highest slugging percentage when swinging at in-zone pitches, 2012

BatterSlugging Pct.
Josh Hamilton .839
Mike Trout .733
Ryan Braun .731
Chris Davis .723
Miguel Cabrera .720
Jay Bruce .712
Pedro Alvarez .709
Mark Trumbo .706
Robinson Cano .699
Adrian Beltre .697
MLB Avg. for qualified hitters .544

 

So, Hamilton is the game's preeminent slugger when he takes a cut at a hittable pitch. Unfortunately, he also chases more pitches outside of the strike zone (42.5%) than any other qualified hitter. Hamilton turns into a scrub when he goes after those junk pitches:

Hamilton's slugging percentage when swinging at out-of-zone pitches, 2012

Hamilton slugged .280 when swinging at a pitch thrown out of the zone, about 20 points below the MLB average for qualified hitters and lower than L.A.'s slap-and-dash shortstop Erick Aybar (.281). Why is Hamilton so ineffective against out-of-zone pitches? It's because the pitches he chases aren't just off the plate -- they're in the next zip code.

Last year, Hamilton swung at more "non-competitive" pitches than any other hitter in the game. Non-competitive pitches are those thrown at least 18 inches away from the center of the strike zone. These aren't pitches that just miss the corners. Rather, they're guaranteed to be called balls by big blue and are next to impossible to make hard contact against if you're crazy enough to swing at them. Hamilton chased 17 more non-competitive pitches than his closest hacking competitor, Alfonso Soriano:

Most swings against non-competitive pitches, 2012

BatterSwings vs. non-competitive pitches
Josh Hamilton 118
Alfonso Soriano 101
Adam Jones 84
Mike Moustakas 79
Starlin Castro 77
Danny Espinosa 75
Ryan Braun 74
Dayan Viciedo 66
Mark Trumbo 66
Miguel Cabrera 63

 

When Hamilton swung at a non-competitive pitch, he went 2-for-46 with 42 strikeouts.

With such an aggressive approach, Hamilton has struck out nearly two-and-a-half times as often as he has walked during his career. His offensive success in spite of his hacking is rare. According to Fangraphs, the only Expansion-Era hitters who managed to be at least 35% above the league average offensively through their age-31 seasons while striking out twice as often as they walked are Frank Howard, Willie Stargell, Dave Parker, Jose Canseco, Ryan Howard, and Hamilton. The common trait among these guys? Mammoth, awe-inspiring power. So long as Hamilton keeps killing strikes, he should produce. But if injuries cut into his pop and he keeps lunging at pitches thrown two feet off the plate, years four and five of this deal could get ugly.

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