- Jayson Stark, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
- 0 Shares
It's only eight months since the Angels turned him into the third $25-million-a-year position player in baseball history.
It's only 15 months since he sent four breathtaking home run balls floating through the Baltimore sky on a single, magical night.
It's only five years since he turned an evening at the Home Run Derby into his own personal fairy tale.
So no wonder we find ourselves asking these days: What the heck happened to Josh Hamilton?
I still believe in Josh's physical ability. I still believe in the player.
"-- Angels GM Jerry Dipoto
He hasn't just taken a journey from Texas to Anaheim. He has taken a journey from superhero to .234 hitter. And when you ask people around baseball how that could be possible, they say things like: "I don't know, man. It's the mystery of the ages."
But you don't need to be a descendant of Agatha Christie to know it's a mystery, all right.
It's a mystery when a man with Josh Hamilton's massive power can own a lower slugging percentage (.419) than James Loney.
It's a mystery when a man with Josh Hamilton's prodigious offensive skill set can have a lower OPS (.713) than Brian Dozier.
It's a mystery when a man earning twice as much as the Astros' entire roster could find himself batting seventh in his lineup on back-to-back nights -- which actually transpired, honest to goodness, in late June.
So we set out this week to answer that question: What the heck happened to Josh Hamilton?
We spoke with his general manager, Jerry Dipoto, a man who said, firmly: "I still believe in Josh's physical ability. I still believe in the player. … And we've seen signs, over the last three weeks [as Hamilton has put up a .329/.414/.539 slash line over a 19-game stretch], that he's getting back to doing the things that Josh Hamilton does."
But we also spoke with executives, scouts and others inside the game who have known this man for years. And what we learned is what we'd suspected:
There's much more here than meets the eye -- or the stat sheet.
What happened to his swing?
He still bounces on his heels in the batter's box, his wavy hair popping out of his batting helmet, his bat draped over his shoulder, his wrists flexed, his eyes fixed. But that's about the only part of Hamilton's offensive repertoire that looks the same.
It's when he swings that bat that things begin to look incredibly un-Josh-like. Just compare last year's results with this year's. This is what you'll find:
The average distance of every fly ball he hits has dropped by more than 26 feet, according to Fangraphs -- from 299.8 feet to 273.4. … His Isolated Power (which measures power by subtracting batting average from slugging percentage) has plummeted by more than 100 points -- from .292 to .185 overall -- and is way down both at home and on the road. … His percentage of "hard-hit balls" has taken a steep dive, according to Inside Edge, from 34 percent to 22 percent.
Get the picture? That's what the numbers say. The eyeballs concur.
"I saw him last year when he was on fire, and it was nuts," said one AL scout. "Everything he hit was just barreled. And it jumped. … Now it's just not the same coming off the bat. It's the same approach. But it's not jumping the way it did."
"He doesn't drive the ball like he used to," said another AL exec. "He doesn't drive the ball from left-center field to the right-field foul pole like he always did. He just doesn't seem to have that ability anymore."
Yet another AL exec thought back to the electrifying night when everything changed for this man: Home Run Derby, Yankee Stadium, July 14, 2008.
"Nobody ever froze a Home Run Derby like Josh Hamilton did," the exec said, with the kind of emotion you rarely hear in the voice of men like this when they discuss events like the Derby. "Hitting balls that almost left Yankee Stadium? Are you kidding? He was just so much better than anybody else. But he's not the same guy right now."
So what happened to that guy? One theme that kept coming up was how much "skinnier" he is now. And it's possible that's all the Juice Lady's fault.
A year ago, he played at a weight that fluctuated at between 240 and 250 pounds. He's played most of this year, from what we've gleaned, at a weight somewhere in the range of 30 pounds lighter than that, thanks to a new gluten-free diet dominated by fruit and vegetable juices, which he says he learned about watching the Juice Lady on late-night TV.
That diet hasn't been a big topic of media conversation since spring training. But it sure is a topic among scouts and executives who have been watching this guy and wondering why he looks the way he looks these days and hits the way he hits.
"When you look at him, you can see he's still physically strong," said one AL exec. "He's still a very imposing figure. But there's a lot less of him than there was a couple of years ago."
(WE INTERRUPT THIS DISCUSSION TO ADDRESS THE CONSPIRACY-THEORY CROWD: Before we go on, we should mention right here that NO ONE we talked to believes Josh Hamilton is a PED guy. He had a serious "recreational" drug problem once upon a time. That's exhaustively documented. But people who know him well assured us that, as a recovering addict who is tested constantly, he's about as unlikely a candidate to take the PED road as any player alive. Do we know for sure about anyone? Of course not. But we sincerely believe that isn't the case here. You can now resume firing the usual slop against the wall if you'd like. But not us.)
But this whole diet/Juice Lady/power-loss thing is far from Hamilton's only serious offensive issue. There's also this:
It sometimes seems as if this guy takes a hack at everything, from breaking balls in the dirt to Airbuses whooshing by him at 30,000 feet.
Here are the terrifying facts on that front, courtesy of TruMedia:
So far this season, he has swung at 439 pitches that were NOT in the strike zone -- the third-most in the big leagues, behind only Pablo Sandoval (473) and Adam Jones (443). Let's just say that hasn't worked out so hot.
The data shows that Hamilton is hitting .141 when he does that, with -- ready for this? -- 90 strikeouts, 26 hits and only five extra-base hits (three doubles and two homers). So why, asked one scout, "would you ever throw the guy a strike?"
But then again, wondered an AL executive, why is that big news?
"His approach is his approach, and it's always been his approach," the exec said. "Check the numbers. I think you'll find he's always done that."
OK, we checked. Last year, he swung at 649 pitches that weren't in the strike zone -- over 100 more than anyone else. And he's chasing about the same percentage of non-strikes (37.5) that he has over the five seasons TruMedia has kept track (38.3). But …
He also used to have a lot more success when he chased. In 2010, he hit .280 on pitches out of the zone. In May 2012, when he was the AL player of the month, he hit .341/.464/.545 on those pitches and got as many extra-base hits on non-strikes in one month (five) as he has gotten all SEASON this year.
So why isn't THAT happening anymore? Another AL executive connected the dots right back to his weight loss.
"That breaking ball that's five inches out of the strike zone and down, that he's always swung at, isn't there an element of strength that's required to hit that pitch?" the exec observed. "His chase rate is not very different. It's what he's doing with those pitches that's different. I think it's all connected."
Whatever the reasons, though, the upshot is this: His whole aura is different. And it's a major issue.
"He's not as intimidating," said one scout. "Pitchers will pitch around everyone else now to get to him. He's just not the same threat he used to be."
What happened to his comfort zone?
As anyone who has followed the life and times of Hamilton well knows, he's a complicated guy. He's engaging and likable, and an easy human being to root for. But his world is also filled with shadows from a troubled past and lurking demons.
So one source with a long history with this man, a source we can't identify in any way, makes it clear that no look at Josh Hamilton the baseball player can ever fail to include a deeper look at all the shifting breezes that swirl around him constantly.
"I don't think his talent has disappeared overnight," said the source, whom we'll identify only as Josh's friend. "I think this is about the mental side of the game. It's about his support system and the way that's changed."
From the stories we've been told, it's difficult even to comprehend everything that was done in Texas to keep this fellow pointed in the right direction, by everyone from the manager to the clubhouse guys, from the front office to his teammates.
He had a manager, in Ron Washington, who was willing to spend hours and hours talking and listening, inside and outside the ballpark.
He had teammates, many of them, who never let themselves forget how mega-talented Hamilton was, so they were willing to look past his on-the-field funks and off-the-field quirks and keep him happy and motivated.
He had coaches such as Clint Hurdle and Johnny Narron who understood him, connected with him and knew exactly the right buttons to push.
He even had a fan base that, for all but the final weeks of his time in Texas, didn't merely cheer for him, but worshiped him.
And then he left all that behind, for a team that had done its homework, had a high-ranking executive (in assistant GM Scott Servais) who had spent four seasons with Hamilton in Texas and thought it was ready to provide as close to the same comfort zone in Anaheim as he'd been used to in Texas.
Except, as it turned out, that just wasn't possible.
"Josh is a guy who needs support," Josh's friend said. "He needs a loose manager who will embrace him at every turn. … I'm not saying Mike Scioscia can't [provide that support]. I'm saying it's possible that any manager, other than Ron Washington and maybe Joe Maddon or Clint Hurdle, could have given him the kind of support he's used to."
So what has happened since Hamilton left his unique cocoon in Texas is nobody's "fault." The Angels, from all accounts, have done everything they could do to replicate the support system he'd had the previous five seasons in Texas -- including bringing over his "accountability partner," Shayne Kelley, as a staff assistant.
What they've found out, though, is that some things in life can't be replicated.
It's no one's "fault" that Hamilton found himself walking into a tumultuous environment that was very different from what he was used to. But here's what he encountered when he did:
Big expectations, colored by dollar signs and the disappointments of 2012. … A more diverse, less nurturing clubhouse. … A manager, in Scioscia, with a harder edge, a different style and a less comfortable relationship with his front office. … And a fan base that didn't know this man, hadn't reveled in any of his MVP greatness and couldn't possibly be as patient as the mostly adoring masses in Texas he'd left behind.
Turned out to be a turbulent mix. And it's all fed into a season that's been almost as hard to watch as it's been for Hamilton to live through it.
"In a positive environment, he's good," Josh's friend said. "But in a negative environment, that negativity just [feeds on itself], because of the things that have happened in his past, because he's living life on such a slippery slope."
Even in Texas late last season, we got to see how difficult it was for Hamilton to confront any level of significant negativity.
The Rangers' season was spiraling in the wrong direction. At the same time, Hamilton was about as out of whack as a great hitter can be. So suddenly, the cheers sounded more like boos. He was taking heat for a series of awful at-bats. And that, said Josh's friend, was a "catastrophic turn of events" for a man who had grown accustomed to being surrounded by a never-ending lovefest.
"Someone like Reggie Jackson probably played better when he got booed, but it was kryptonite for Josh," Josh's friend said. "He was Superman. Then he went from superhuman to human. … And that wasn't something he could truly process."
You know the rest. The disastrous ending in Texas. The dropped fly ball in Oakland. The 0-for-4, two-punchout, wild-card-game mess. A free-agent market that didn't develop the way he'd expected. The out-of-the-blue signing with the Angels. And everything that has transpired since.
When the discussion turns to off-the-field issues, his new GM politely declines to engage in that line of conversation. But when asked how confident he is that the Angels will some day see the Josh Hamilton who still has approximately $110 remaining on his deal over the next four years, Jerry Dipoto replies: "Very confident, actually."
"He's still a naturally gifted player," Dipoto said. "I believe in those natural gifts. And I believe we'll see the Josh Hamilton we're familiar with as we move forward. It's been a difficult transition. But I believe we're seeing a guy who has taken off, based on what he's done over the last three weeks, and we'll have that guy moving forward. I still think the upside of what he can do is tremendous."
Others, though, are not so sure.
"Oh, it's still in there," said one scout. "I've watched him take BP. I've seen him come out and try to hit it a long ways, and he does. I've seen him hit it off the back wall in Camden Yards, in center field. So I know it's still in there. It's gotta be. But there are so many variables with this guy that we don't know, and that we'll never know. And that's the problem. There's so much with him that's unknown -- and that was the danger in signing him."
"To be honest," said an AL executive, "I think it's best for him to get out of there. But the way that contract is structured [with $30 million salaries backloaded into his deal in 2016 and '17] … was crippling, because, if the environment proved not to be right for him, there was no way to extricate him from that situation."
So the truth is, because of the immovable nature of that contract, this HAS to work. And he and the Angels have no choice but to find a way to make it work, whatever that takes.
If it does, if they find that path, it will be one of baseball's most remarkable comeback tales. But then again, says Josh Hamilton's GM, we're talking about a player who already has written one of those tales. And we should never forget that.
"If there's a story of resiliency that echoes louder than Josh Hamilton's, please tell me what it is," Dipoto said, "because I need to go read it."