Sunday, December 08, 2013

Can Hamilton and Pujols bounce back?

When Robinson Cano signed his mega-deal with the Seattle Mariners, the two names that came up most often in stories and comparisons were Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton. The two recent free agent sweepstakes winners were used as the counterweight of what can go wrong with signing long-term deals to players past their primes. Instead of "Remember the Maine" being used as a battle cry, we heard, "Remember Pujols and Hamilton." Forget the money for a moment. The two Angel players are going to get paid insane amounts of money. There is nothing to be done about that fact. But can they come back in 2014 and contribute?

Let's start with Josh Hamilton. Unlike Pujols, Hamilton appeared to be healthy in 2013. He played in 151 games, which, when it comes to Hamilton's past injury history, you would have taken gladly. But he did not produce and became all but forgotten in the grand scheme of things. His wOBA of .319 (OPS+ of 108) was the lowest of his career. His 21 homers were half of his 2012 season. His lack of luster in play led him to become, along with Pujols, the symbol of all that had gone wrong for the Angels.

So what went wrong? For one, he did not enjoy success hitting at home. After successful years hitting at Rangers Ballpark and putting up a career .964 OPS there, Hamilton could only muster a triple slash line at Angel Stadium of .236/.289/.401. That paltry .690 OPS at home compares pretty snugly to the career .717 OPS for his career in that ballpark. Sometimes you have to wonder if agents and players think about ballparks when considering offers. It is clear that Angel Stadium is not conducive to Hamilton's success.

Hamilton hit much better on the road. And while his .787 road OPS is much better, it is still below his standards. So what else went wrong then?

One key statistic is his pitch value against the fastball. In his two great years in Texas, his fastball pitch values were over 30 runs per season. In his lesser years there, his values against the fastball were still fearsome at 19.0 and 18.4 runs above average in 2011 and 2012. That plummeted to only 5.7 runs above average in 2013.

While he used to kill fastballs, Hamilton held his own against other pitch types. But in 2013, the slider killed him. While never previously finishing below -2.4 runs against that pitch and often scoring above average in most other years, Hamilton had a pitch value against the slider of -12.7 runs. Wow!

Word gets around on such things and pitchers exploited Hamilton with the slider. He saw the pitch 19.5% in 2013, the highest of his career.

The real thing most people talk about when it comes to Hamilton is his free-swinging ways. Much has been made about his O-swing rate or the rate Hamilton swings at pitches out of the strike zone. rates Hamilton's increase in doing so way more than PitchF/X does, which makes you wonder which one is more accurate.

If you believe Fangraphs, then his O-swing rate the last three years has gone through the roof. But if you believe PitchF/X, then he had a one-year blip in 2012 and his rate in 2013 was near his career norms.

Whichever is correct, there is no denying that Hamilton has no plate discipline. When a 30% O-swing rate or lower is the ideal, then Hamilton's PitchF/X career average of 39% is not good and never has been. But Hamilton produced despite that fact until 2013.

So is he done then as a productive player? I have a hard time making that pronouncement. If you look at his career, he has always had swings in his years. 2009 was otherworldly and then 2010 was not. In fairness, there was some injury problems there.

There is a little hope in that his second half of 2013 was much better than his first half. And he finished real strong in September, though it is troubling that his homer total fell off in the second half. Hamilton's batting average and on-base percentage improved dramatically in the second half, but his first half contained more power.

While there is hope that Hamilton bounces back in 2014, I don't expect it. Half of his games are in a ballpark where he has never seemed comfortable at the plate. Unless he can adjust to the slider pitchers are feeding him and get his groove back against fastballs, then Hamilton becomes an .800 OPS guy, which simply is not enough to help the Angels where they need to go.

So far the projections match my feelings that Albert Pujols will bounce back some in 2014. You have to assume that 2013's results were totally from injuries suffered to Albert's wheels. He tried to play and could barely walk, never mind run and still hit 17 homers in 99 games.

And yes, 2013 finished a three year arc of decline for Pujols that has seen his OPS fall from consistently over one to .906 his last year in St. Louis to .859 in 2012 and then .767 in 2013. I still believe much of 2012 and 2013's problems were health related but time will tell.

All I know is that for Albert Pujols' first ten years, he was right up there with the greats of all time. At the age of 33, he only needs eight more homers for 500. In only 13 years, he has compiled over 2,300 hits and over a thousand extra base hits. Does a guy like that just fall into sheep dip? Maybe. Maybe not.

Like Hamilton, Pujols has fallen off against the fastball. He killed them in the past and fell off in his last year at St. Louis to half his previous value against fastballs and then that was cut in half again in 2013. Pujols never had negative values against any pitch type in his first ten years but was in the negative on three different pitch types in 2013.

Steamer and Oliver both project Pujols to bounce back somewhat in 2014. Though that bounce back will not get him back to where he was in his first ten years, it is still a projection that is optimistic that he will have some impact for the Angels.

Personally, I don't think Pujols is done as a player and I expect one or two more big seasons from him. I do believe his health has not been optimal since 2011. If he can come back feeling good in 2014, then people may be surprised by what he does. Heck, Harmon Killebrew had an MVP season at the age of 33 after a down season plagued by injury. That slugger followed his MVP season with another great one at the age of 34.

For the Angels, you know that (if he stays healthy) Mike Trout is going to Mike Trout. But if Josh Hamilton and Albert Pujols can recapture some of their past glory and give the phenom some support, 2014 might be a far better scene for the Angels than 2013 was.

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