Less than a year ago, Josh Hamilton hit 3,621 feet worth of home runs in one week. He was the best baseball player on the planet, and nobody offered much of an argument. Not Mike Trout, who was barely back in the major leagues from Triple-A, nor Miguel Cabrera, coming off an April in which he didn't hit .300. It was Hamilton alone, thanks to 18 home runs in 31 games and a swing that looked as if it never met failure.
Then came the rest of his season – the .252 batting average, the sub-.500 slugging percentage, the copious strikeouts (134 in 440 at-bats, a higher rate than Adam Dunn over his career), the blaming struggles on blue eyes and chewing tobacco, the dropped fly ball, the booing in Texas and, finally, Los Angeles Angels owner Arte Moreno playing TARP to Hamilton's AIG with a five-year, $125 million bit of heavenly manna.
Following the Angels' 31st game Sunday, all of the I-told-you-so'ers and Schadenfreudophiles are wearing permagrins at the failure that has been the Hamilton-Angels marriage.
The Angels are 11-20 after another loss to Baltimore on Sunday. Hamilton, hitting between Trout and Albert Pujols, has been one of the worst hitters in baseball. Looking at him compared to 2012 at this juncture is like seeing the fresco of Jesus turn into a monkey.
Through 31 games last year, he was Steroid Barry Bonds. Through 31 games this year, he is Eric Sogard (career over 271 plate appearances: .202/.256/.298).
All of this is playing out like Moreno's nuclear stinkbomb of 2012, the Pujols deal, which stretches another eight years and $212 million beyond this season, in which he's hitting .237/.319/.407 and grinding through debilitating plantar fasciitis. And it leaves us to wonder: How much of this is small-sample, sky-is-falling blather, and how much concern does it genuinely merit?
To answer that, we shall bust out our first 10 Degrees Floating Head Scale of the season. This is not Dubious Face or Dominant Face. Hamilton's start calls for Panic Face, and nothing personifies Panic Face quite like Edvard Munch's classic painting "The Scream."
Just picture it. The man is standing on a boardwalk. The ocean swirls behind him. Turns out this iconic painting is just of another frustrated fan in the OC lamenting …
1. Josh Hamilton striking out again. It got bad enough that on Saturday, Angels manager Mike Scioscia held Hamilton out of the starting lineup because he needed "a mental day." Hamilton pinch hit and flied out, and even after he stroked a double off Darren O'Day on Sunday, he had shown next to no signs of his former self, leading to the question: What's really wrong with Hamilton?
a) Pitchers have found Hamilton's Kryptonite, and it's low-and-away pitches. He was bad there last year, too, but this season it's gotten downright ugly: Of his 25 swings on pitches below the knees and on the outer half of the plate, he doesn't have a single hit.
b) He can't hit balls out of the strike zone, which is bad considering Hamilton has the third-highest swing rate of all players on pitches outside the zone. Of his 41 swings at balls, not one has fallen for a hit.
c) Left-handers are killing him. Last year: .291/.333/.520 against lefties. This year, albeit a tiny sample of 35 plate appearances:.188/.200/.219.
d) He's pulling everything. Only four of Hamilton's 26 hits have gone to the opposite field this season. Last season, balls to left and left-center peppered his spray chart.
The good news – and there is good news – is Hamilton can't get a whole lot worse, which is why his panic level doesn't match his stats.
Now, this is a short-term prognosis, which is to say Hamilton will get better this year and, considering his cold streaks tend to find companions in conflagration, his numbers won't be all that bad by the end of the season. As for $25 million-a-year good … well, let's not get greedy. Put it this way: He'll deliver for the Angels more bang for their buck than …
2. Roy Halladay for the Philadelphia Phillies. Halladay looks like he's headed to the disabled list after one of the worst starts of his career Sunday, allowing nine runs in 2 1/3 innings to the Miami Marlins, who entered the game averaging 2.73 per game. Let's just get Doc's panic level out of the way now.
Similar, actually, to a place the Phillies could soon find themselves. Ignominious as getting outscored 23-2 by the Marlins may be, more disconcerting is the sub-.300 team on-base percentage that contributes to a .678 OPS, the fifth worst in baseball. By no means is the Phillies' pitching any great shakes, either, not beyond Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels, an improved Kyle Kendrick and a few relievers.
This is a team that looks ripe for a July sell-off unless something changes fast. And for a team as old as the Phillies – average age: 30.2 – fast is not something they do well. The only two older teams are the New York Yankees and a …
3. Toronto Blue Jays squad that, more than any expected contender, has buried itself before the season was even a quarter over. This is no proclamation of death. Call it an open-casket wake that leaves one floating head empty just in case.
Here's the problem: The 11-21 Blue Jays are in the American League East, and so are four other good-to-great teams. While a 9½-game deficit is far from impermeable, a look at the last 10 years of cellar-dwelling teams in the AL East after Game 32 does not bode well.
2012 – Boston: 13-19. Finished: 69-93, last place.
2011– Baltimore: 14-18. Finished: 69-93, last place.
2010 – Baltimore: 9-23. Finished: 66-96, last place.
2009 – Baltimore: 13-19. Finished: 64-98, last place.
2008 – Toronto: 15-17. Finished: 86-76, fourth place.
2007 – Toronto: 13-19. Finished: 83-79, third place.
2006 – Tampa Bay: 13-19. Finished: 61-101, last place.
2005 – Tampa Bay: 11-21. Finished: 67-95, last place.
2004 – Tampa Bay: 9-23. Finished: 70-91, fourth place.
2003 – Tampa Bay: 12-20. Finished: 63-99, last place.
So … uh … at least there are the '07 and '08 Jays.
These Jays? They're reduced to hoping Jose Reyes makes a miraculous recovery from his ankle injury, R.A. Dickey rekindles his magic, Josh Johnson's arm heals, Mark Buehrle remembers to bring his smoke and mirrors along with his passport and …
As for Buchholz's inclusion on this list, it's merely out of fear that what he's done this season – 6-0, 1.01 ERA, 47 strikeouts in 44 2/3 innings – is directly attributable to whatever Dirk Hayhurst, Jack Morris and others accused him of doing to the ball. Considering Buchholz's ball moved no more in his last start than his others, this one doesn't register on the Panic Meter.
[Yahoo! Sports Radio: Jeff Passan on surprise of Yankees, Red Sox in AL East]
Baseball will not suspend Buchholz on account of a couple of talking heads talking, though umpires will be on the lookout and opposing managers may call for something to get in Buchholz's head. If Kenny Rogers didn't get disciplined for this, Buchholz will get off safe. What he must worry about is keeping his home run rate absurdly low and his strand rate absurdly high, neither of which is likely and both of which should send his ERA away from superhuman levels. Probably not where …
5. Matt Cain finds his at the moment, even after 7 1/3 innings of one-run ball against the Los Angeles Dodgers on Sunday night brought his ERA down to 5.57. It was far more indicative of the real Cain than the one who uglied up his first six starts and prompted Giants fans to wonder what sort of world they were living in where Cain, Tim Lincecum and Ryan Vogelsong were being outpitched by Barry Zito.
While Lincecum and Vogelsong's struggles are troubling, it looks as if Cain did nothing more than save his worst stretch for the beginning of the season. At the root of it was an anomalous number of home runs leaving the park – nearly triple the rate Cain has sustained for his career. And while his home run rate has itself been an anomaly – he is an extreme flyball pitcher who doesn't give up many home runs – it has revealed itself as something of a skill for Cain, the sort he wouldn't lose overnight without another indicator like a velocity drop (nope) or new mix of pitcher (not that, either).
Because he's a pitcher, there always is the chance his arm is hurt, which is why he gets one Scream. Otherwise, his strikeout rate is up, his walk rate is good as ever, one scout who saw him Sunday texted "sharp as hell, he's fine" and the concern over an elite pitcher now shifts to …
6. David Price and the Tampa Bay Rays. A nine-run outing at Coors Field punctuated by a Nolan Arenado grand slam left the reigning AL Cy Young winner with a 6.25 ERA through seven starts. Price has allowed 31 earned runs already. He didn't give up his 31st earned run until June 19 last season.
The facts aren't quite so grisly. Yes, Price's fastball velocity is down nearly 2 mph from last season, a little less than that year-over-year. That could be what's making him more hittable. Even so, he has been wildly unlucky. On balls in play, batters are hitting .351, the fifth-highest mark in the big leagues and about 50 points higher than average. More than 20 percent of fly balls off Price are going over the fence. That's the sixth-highest rate. Combine that with a groundball rate still over 50 percent, and Price is, like Cain, a great rebound bet.
The Rays, on the other hand, have a perfectly average offense and a pitching staff that has struggles beyond Price. There is a questionable bullpen, a closer overtaxed by the World Baseball Classic and a rotation buoyed, for now, by its two youngest members while the other three struggle.
This goes back to the AL East problem. At 14-16, the Rays aren't Blue Jays dreadful. They're just average in a division where average doesn't cut it. Luckily, they've got Wil Myers, Chris Archer and Jake Odorizzi ready at Triple-A, another new generation so when guys like …
7. B.J. Upton leave they can look at what he does in his new spot and be glad they don't have the money to keep him away from free agency. Upton always has been more could-be and should-be than actually-is. The lotto ticket that is Upton cost the Atlanta Braves $75 million over the next five years, and for that they get a case of legitimate agita borne of disconcerting trends.
Upton actually isn't swinging at as many outside pitches, and he's swinging and missing at about the same rate as last year, but the Braves expected plenty more than last year's sub-.300 OBP. They wanted him to run – and he's been on base so little, he's barely gotten a chance. Upton is just 3 for 6 in stolen-base attempts, and only four times when he's been on first or second base has a Brave gotten a hit. He'd fit in pretty well with the …
8. Los Angeles Dodgers' anemic offense. The only team with less pop than the Dodgers this season has been the Marlins. Heading into Sunday's game against the Giants, the Dodgers' isolated power – that's slugging percentage minus batting average – was .111. The $200 million-plus mega-team had all the power of a Tonka truck.
Yeah, there is legitimacy to the Dodgers' panic. The NL West is better than expected. Hanley Ramirez is headed back to the disabled list after a lovely four-game reminder that he still exists. Zack Greinke is there for the foreseeable future after he tried to go all John Cena on Carlos Quentin. Adrian Gonzalez is hurting. The Dodgers' greatest offensive force is Carl Crawford, while the other two-thirds of the $387 million outfield, Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier, have contributed bupkis to the cause.
The solace they can take: Hey, at least we're not the …
9. Los Angeles Angels, who when assembling their ballclub seemed to forget the relative importance of pitching. The Angels already have tried 19 pitchers this season, shuffling them in and out, trying to make up for the freak Jered Weaver injury and thinking Ryan Madson's elbow might hold up.
Because Moreno does err toward rash decisions, there is a chance he could see the current disaster – 11-20, run differential of minus-32, nine games back of first-place Texas and 6½ of second-place Oakland – and do something like fire Mike Scioscia. This would be crazy. Because of the number of Screams here seem to contradict the preceding words.
Look, the Angels' future is a mess. The Pujols and Hamilton contracts are albatrosses. Their farm system, beyond Kaleb Cowart, is barren. And every year without a contract extension for Trout is one year closer to his free agency. None of that matters altogether much this year. Trout is getting hot. And Pujols, as he always does, will fight through pain and produce. Weaver will be back. Mark Trumbo may well finally carry his first-half success into the second half if he can keep walking.
Do not underestimate the importance of winning now. The contracts for Pujols and …
10. Josh Hamilton practically mandate a win-now attitude, and so whatever it takes – and GM Jerry Dipoto can get creative – the Angels are going to push this season.
And what better way to get healthy than three games against Houston? The Angels, remember, have faced a brutal schedule so far: six against Texas and Oakland, along with series against Cincinnati, Detroit and Baltimore. The upcoming gantlet: Astros, White Sox, Royals, White Sox, Mariners, Royals, Dodgers, Astros, Cubs. Only one winning team among the bunch, and it's Kansas City.
Sometime in there, Hamilton will find himself, and he'll go on one of his jags that makes us wonder how he ever could've been as bad as he was over the first 31 games. He won't hit 3,621 feet of home runs in a week. He won't convince anyone he's the best baseball player in the world, not anymore.
He will remind us, however, that he's Josh Hamilton, not Eric Sogard
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