Everybody can agree that Josh Hamilton is mind-bogglingly talented — even for a five-time All-Star and former MVP, and especially for somebody who was completely out of baseball for three years as he grappled with recovering from debilitating addictions.
Even baseball's Superman, however, has his kryptonite. For Hamilton, that kryptonite is pitches out of the strike zone.
It's become such a problem for the superstar — hitting just .199 with seven home runs and 24 RBIs since the beginning of June heading into Wednesday's tilt against the Red Sox — that he was called out by none other than team owner and baseball legend Nolan Ryan during a radio appearance on Monday.
"Some of his at-bats aren't very impressive from the standpoint that he doesn't work deep into the count, he's swinging at a lot of bad pitches, he just doesn't seem to be locked in at all," Ryan said on ESPN Dallas 103.3 FM. "There's a lot of those at-bats that he just gives away."
No, really — Hamilton swings at a huge amount of bad pitches. It sounds obvious to say that a hitter can't hit bad pitches well, but that table is striking in its representation of just how notable a flaw Hamilton has. The percentages in each square represent the amount of pitches in that area Hamilton has swung at on the year. The lowest percentage of pitches he's swung at in a given area outside the zone is 39 percent, on pitches down and in. For comparison's sake, nearly one-third of Albert Pujols' swing percentages on pitches outside the zone are lower than that.
In other words, Hamilton freely swings at no fewer than one out of every three pitches thrown outside the strike zone — so Ryan's harsh comments and manager Ron Washington's subsequent declaration of agreement on a radio show on Wednesday have some merit to them.
More than that, however, they potentially offer an interesting window into the Rangers' thought process regarding the upcoming offseason. For as much as Ryan and Washington clearly want their prodigiously gifted outfielder to start performing again as soon as possible, the organization has a huge decision to make when Hamilton becomes a free agent after the season ends.
After all, there are a few factors that — when added up — make Hamilton potentially the most intriguing free agent to ever hit the open market.
On the one hand, he is a career .306 hitter with an OPS of .914, and has 162-game averages of 35 home runs, 121 RBIs and 102 runs scored. On the other hand, the average amount of games he's actually played in his first five seasons has been only 118. On the one hand, he's a massive star, one of the few legitimate five-tool players in the majors and adored in Texas. On the other hand, he's a 31-year-old former drug addict who is a walking injury risk — exacerbated by his all-out style of play. On the one hand, when healthy, he's arguably the best player in the majors. On the other hand, nobody knows how his body will hold up as he ages.
Hamilton is in the final year of a 2-year, $24 million contract. Given his performance history and the fact that this will likely be the last big contract he can get, he will want to get paid not only a large amount of money, but a long-term investment. The question is not whether Texas can afford him — they have a huge 20-year TV deal with Fox Sports Southwest worth $3 billion — but whether they want to toss Matt Kemp-type money at him.
Kemp, who is also in the discussion for best player in the game when healthy, signed an eight-year, $160 million extension before the start of this season.
This could definitely be seen as a situation like the one Pujols found himself in last year. He had been signed to an exceptionally team-friendly deal throughout his time in St. Louis, and so felt that he deserved to get paid as the legend he is — whether or not he hit well enough to deserve that money in future years. The Cardinals sat it out, but the Angels bit and gave him a staggering $240 million over 10 years.
Signs have pointed to the Rangers not being willing to simply roll over and give Hamilton what he wants — reportedly offering him only four- or five-year extensions, showing interest in trading for Justin Upton and his own exceptionally team-friendly deal — and Ryan's criticism can be seen in part as perhaps the latest indication that the Rangers are willing to play hardball with Hambone come November.
As spectacularly as Hamilton can perform — he is, after all, one of only 16 men to hit four home runs in a game, and his .359 average in 2010 was the highest by any player with at least 30 home runs, excluding the Steroid Era, since Norm Cash hit .361 with 41 homers in 1961 — his propensity to swing at any pitch he decides he likes will not help his case when negotiating with the Rangers.
Ryan's already made it quite clear — even going so far as to compare Hamilton unfavorably to Hank Aaron — that he's not a fan of a strategy that has left Hamilton with a career walk rate of only 8.2 percent. And if his superstar outfielder wants more than Ryan and general manager Jon Daniels are willing to give, it wouldn't be surprising to see Hamilton wearing a different uniform next season.