Spring Training: Over/under 2014

Pressure's on Josh Hamilton

March, 18, 2014
Mar 18
2:27
PM ET
TEMPE, Ariz. -- Josh Hamilton takes batting practice like it's the last time he'll ever step in the cage. Every swing is ferocious and lightning quick, and he's apparently trying to crush every pitch 500 feet. This isn't Wade Boggs up there, hitting so many balls to left field, so many to center, so many to right and so many over the fence. For Hamilton, every BP is the Home Run Derby.

[+] EnlargeJosh Hamilton
Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty ImagesJosh Hamilton batted just .250 with 21 home runs in 151 games last season in his first year with the Angels.
But hey, I doubt Babe Ruth worked on hitting singles to the opposite field.

After nursing a calf injury, Hamilton made his first spring training appearance on Monday and went 1-for-3, singling sharply off the glove of diving Giants first baseman Mark Minicozzi. Hamilton didn't show any effects of the injury, beating out a potential double play ball in the first inning and attempting a steal on a 3-2 pitch to David Freese in the fourth inning.

"He was running well and that's great to see," Angels manager Mike Scioscia told reporters after the game. "He's got to get out and play the outfield. We'll see how it goes, then. There are still some hurdles. We're not going to work too far ahead right now."

Hamilton had said on Sunday that he feels like he needs 45 to 55 at-bats to get ready for the season opener and that beginning the season on the disabled list isn't an option. After Monday's game he told reporters, "I got on base and I tried to steal and did the things I'm supposed to be doing." He's going to take Tuesday off.

Hamilton turns 33 in May, at that precarious age when skills often start to erode, when a player's ability to adapt and adjust become more important than ever. Even natural talent as explosive as Hamilton's fades at some point. As Angels pitcher C.J. Wilson told me on Monday, "You're always making adjustments. Adjust or you'll be out of the game."

Wilson was talking about himself and how spring training isn't just merely about getting his innings in, but the comment applies to Hamilton: Is he going to make adjustments? Is he willing to change his approach at the plate? Is that easy to say, harder to do?

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The knock against Hamilton, especially as his average dipped in the second half in 2012 and during his first season with the Angels, has been his overly aggressive approach and expanding the strike zone. After striking out 95 times in 2010 and 93 times in 2011, his strikeouts ramped up to 162 and 158 the past two seasons. He went from striking out once every 5.3 at-bats to once every 3.6 at-bats. That was undoubtedly one reason Hamilton hit a disappointing .250/.307/.432 for the Angels last season, numbers well below his career totals of .304/.363/.549 entering the season.

Against the Giants, Hamilton faced Tim Lincecum, who struggled all day with his fastball command and was constantly falling behind hitters. In the first, Hamilton took a fastball away and a pitch low before grounding out softly to second. Leading off the fourth, he swung at the first pitch and singled. In the fifth, he again swung at the first pitch and flew out on a high line drive to right field.

Obviously, it's one spring training game and you can't and shouldn't read anything into those swings. But swinging at first pitches -- especially first pitches that weren't over the plate -- is what hurt Hamilton in 2013.

He swung at the first pitch in 267 of his 636 plate appearances -- that's 42 percent of the time -- and put 90 of them in play. Swinging at the first pitch isn't necessarily a bad thing; the four players with more total swings on first pitches than Hamilton were Carlos Gomez, Freddie Freeman, Miguel Cabrera and Adam Jones, four hitters you may have heard of. Thing is, however, those four players did much more damage when putting a first pitch into play:

Hamilton: .281, 528 slugging, 6 HR in 89 at-bats
Gomez: .402, .738 slugging, 8 HR in 107 at-bats
Freeman: .455, .747 slugging, 6 HR in 99 at-bats
Cabrera: .448, .917 slugging, 14 HR in 96 at-bats
Jones: .385, .702 slugging, 8 HR in 104 at-bats

Here's a heat map that shows Hamilton's swings on the first pitch -- look how far outside the strike zone he's expanding his coverage. He's not going to do much damage on those pitches way off the plate.

 Josh Hamilton swing rateESPN Stats & InfoJosh Hamilton likes to swing at first pitches ... even those way off the plate.


Also, the other guys hit better after falling into an 0-1 count:

Hamilton: .210/.233/.357
Gomez: .238/.289/.447
Freeman: .267/.335/.403
Cabrera: .290/.349/.513
Jones: .243/.267/.394

Cabrera can get away with swinging at so many first pitches because his hand-eye coordination is freakishly off-the-charts and he has the ability to recover from 0-1 counts. Hamilton isn't Cabrera, at least not any longer, not when pitchers know they don't have to throw him strikes.

One player doesn't make a team, but there's no denying Hamilton's importance to the Angels (along with a healthy Albert Pujols). With the concerns over the starting rotation, the Angels' offense is going to have score runs to get the team back in the postseason for the first time since 2009. It makes Hamilton one of the most important and most intriguing players of 2014.

Will Hamilton bounce back with a stronger year? If it's all about adjustments, until the games begin for real, we won't know the answer.

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