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August 7, 2012

Western Front

When the Time is Right

by Geoff Young

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Once upon a time, Josh Hamilton was going to hit .400 and Albert Pujols was washed up. Then magic (well, regression) happened and it no longer was so.

When last we checked, Hamilton and Pujols were headed in opposite directions. After beginning the season at .404/.458/.838 through 35 games, Hamilton slumped. Pujols hit .213/.248/.307 during that same stretch (May 16, to be precise) and then caught fire. Not literally, of course—that would be painful.

Hamilton, the toast of baseball for the season's first six weeks, struggled to remain above the Mendoza line. Then he started saying weird things:

I'm cool, man. I'm really good. The frustrating part is this [dealing with the media] and not being able to share everything with you guys. When the time is right, I'll be honest with you, you'll be right in the loop.

And although “When the Time Is Right, I'll Be Honest With You” sounds like the title of some undiscovered Hank Williams song (which Patsy Cline would manage to make sound even better), Hamilton's cryptic words don't ease the sting of his performance even as his Rangers are trying to stave off the Angels and A's in the American League West.

With the Rangers and Angels squaring off in Arlington for a four-game showdown last week, here is how Hamilton and Pujols had performed between the former's fall from .400 through said showdown:

Hamilton and Pujols, May 17 – July 29

Player

PA

BA

OBP

SLG

PA/HR

Hamilton

242

.204

.285

.408

24.2

Pujols

276

.318

.399

.597

17.3

First Verse
The Rangers score eight runs in this game. The Angels score nine in the sixth inning. Roy Oswalt can't keep the ball in the ballpark on an evening where the recorded temperature at first pitch is 102 degrees.

Pujols has faced Oswalt more than any other pitcher in his career. Oswalt has faced Pujols more than any other hitter. Yin and yang. They complete each other.

One is more complete than the other. Entering the contest, Pujols has batted .306/.352/.592 with seven homers in 105 plate appearances against Oswalt (including postseason). Tonight Pujols goes 2-for-3 with two doubles against the man he beat for National League Rookie of the Year more than a decade ago. Both doubles come on 2-2 pitches, which until now had not been a good count for Pujols this year.

The first, with nobody on and two out, comes on a 92-mph fastball down and away that Pujols lofts to left-center. David Murphy loses the ball in the sun. The second, leading off the sixth, is the same pitch but slightly less down and slightly less away. Pujols drives this one to right-center and scores when Kendrys Morales follows with a home run to give the Angels a 5-3 lead.

In between, Pujols flies to center on a 2-1 fastball down and over the heart of the plate. Maybe if he has to reach for the pitch more, he whacks another double.

Pujols ends his evening with a single to center against Michael Kirkman that drives home the final two of his team's 15 runs. It's a 3-1 fastball—you guessed it, down and away. Pujols grounds the pitch just to the shortstop side of second base, beating the shift by less than the length of Ian Kinsler's outstretched glove.

As for Hamilton, he enters the contest at .212/.229/.364 against Santana, with one homer in 35 trips to the plate. The only pitchers Hamilton has faced more are Seattle's Felix Hernandez and Santana's teammate, Jered Weaver.

After Nelson Cruz walks to start the second inning, Hamilton hammers a 90-mph fastball up and out over the plate to left field for a double. He later scores to give the Rangers a 2-1 lead.

With one out in the fourth, Hamilton drives a 2-1 fastball—same speed, lower than the pitch he hit in the second but still out where he can extend his arms—for a homer to left that ties the score, 3-3. He is now 10-for-13 with three doubles and three homers on a 2-1 count this season.

Hamilton singles past shortstop Maicer Izturis in the sixth against right-hander Jerome Williams on a 93-mph sinker down, then grounds another sinker to short the next inning before being pulled from the game with his team trailing by nine runs.

Despite the loss, the big story is that this is Hamilton's first three-hit game since May 11, also at home against the Angels. As Hamilton said after Monday night's loss, “You're going to be good sometimes, suck sometimes, and just be average other times.”

Tighten the meter, and that's another song.

Final Tally, 7/30/12

Player

AB

R

H

2B

3B

HR

RBI

BB

K

Hamilton

4

2

3

1

0

1

1

0

0

Pujols

4

2

3

2

0

0

2

1

0

Second Verse
Pujols is about to get comfortable with Derek Holland. After flying out to left to end the top of the first, Pujols is 2-for-8 with a double against the left-hander.

Then, with one out in the fourth, Pujols launches a solo shot to left on an 0-2 pitch. It's a 94-mph sinker up and away that goes up and away, giving the Angels a 1-0 lead. Reaction is swift:

  • 0-2 and a fastball up to Pujols. Not exactly where you want to go. —Anthony Andro
  • Pujols puts a sinker that doesn't sink, chest high, in the seats in LF for 1-0 lead in fourth. Game's first hit. —Lyle Spencer
  • It's the feel good hit of the summer that's fun for the whole family. —Michael Medved

His next time up, with nobody on and one out in the sixth, Pujols takes the first pitch—an 84-mph changeup down—for ball one. Holland then leaves a sinker up in the zone that Pujols swats into the left-field seats for his second homer of the game, 20th of the season, and 465th of his career, which ties him with Dave Winfield for 31st in major-league history. The Angels extend their lead to 4-0.

Holland later notes of his performance that “it's very frustrating” and says, “If I had to take anything back, I’d just take a couple pitches back.” You can guess which ones, although Holland seems more upset by a walk to Chris Iannetta that helped the Angels break the game open in the sixth.

Pujols grounds out in each of his final two at-bats, but the situation is well in hand by then.

On the other side, Hamilton does little. He enters the contest batting .250/.333/.475 against Weaver, with one home run in 45 plate appearances. Hamilton flies to left and lines to second in his first two at-bats, then singles to right with nobody on and one out in the seventh. He later scores on a Murphy double that cuts the Angels' lead to 6-2, which also is the final score. The Rangers have been outscored in the first two games of the series, 21-10, and it hasn't been that close.

The Angels trail Texas by three games. Both teams fortify their rotations at the trade deadline, with the Angels acquiring Zack Greinke and the Rangers picking up Ryan Dempster. The A's, meanwhile, stand pat. They lurk just behind the division's two big spenders, waiting for one or both to falter.

Final Tally, 7/31/12

Player

AB

R

H

2B

3B

HR

RBI

BB

K

Hamilton

4

1

1

0

0

0

0

0

0

Pujols

5

2

2

0

0

2

2

0

0

Bridge

When last we checked on Josh and Al

A reader mentioned his surprise

That Trout escaped the article*

Despite his meteoric rise

 

A piece on Trout is in the works

It starts with “Wow” and then gets stuck

I feel like such a stupid jerk

I feel like saying “What the—hey, a duck!”

 

Alas, my friend, I know not what to do

When the time is right, I'll be honest with you

*In the spirit of War rhyming CIA with Mafia,“article” is pronounced arti-CAL. Call it artistic license. Or stupid... whichever offends your sensibilities less.

Third Verse
Fans of irony and/or the Rangers will appreciate that Texas overcame an early six-run deficit to win in extra innings despite getting nothing out of Hamilton. Fans of the Angels will be less pleased.

After being the third of Yu Darvish's three straight strikeout victims to begin the game, Pujols swats a two-run homer to left-center in the third to extend the Angels' lead to 4-0. It comes on a 1-1 pitch, a 91-mph fastball that is supposed to be down but that is out over the plate and at the letters.

The next inning, with a runner at second and two out, Pujols makes the final out. He sees five pitches from Darvish—four curveballs and a changeup. The action pitch is an 84-mph curveball that is supposed to be down and away but ends up right down the middle. Pujols drives it to the warning track in left field, where it dies. The Angels lead, 7-1.

Alexi Ogando replaces Darvish in the sixth and ends the frame with a whiff of Pujols on three sliders. The first is 87 mph and catches the outside corner, although Pujols disagrees. The second is 84 mph and down the middle; Pujols fouls it straight back. The last is 86 mph and as far down and away as you can get without killing worms. Pujols flails and misses. The Angels cling to what is now a 7-5 lead.

Leading off the ninth, Pujols grounds out to shortstop against Tanner Scheppers on three pitches. In the bottom half, Ernesto Frieri blows his first save as a member of the Angels, courtesy of a one-out solo homer off the bat of Kinsler.

Then comes the 10th. With one run in and Torii Hunter on first, Pujols—after having his at-bat delayed twice by a flag-waving fan beyond the center-field fence—falls behind Joe Nathan, 1-2. Pujols fouls off an 88-mph slider up and on the outer third of the plate. Nathan comes back with a 94-mph fastball down and in that Pujols hits 407 feet to left field. Pujols fouled off a similar pitch at 1-1, but that one was a little further inside.

Game of inches, indeed. This marks the first time Pujols has had consecutive multiple-homer games in his career. The Angels lead, 10-7.

Meanwhile, Hamilton is having a rough night. He grounds into a 4-6-3 double play to end the first. He strikes out swinging at an 84-mph slider down and away from Garrett Richards to lead off the fourth. The next inning, he fouls off a 3-1 fastball well outside before grounding to second with one out and a runner on second. He strikes out swinging against LaTroy Hawkins to end the seventh. He pops out to shortstop on a 1-0 slider up and in from Frieri with one out in the ninth and Elvis Andrus representing the winning run at second base.

Rangers skipper Ron Washington, speaking on behalf of Ron Washington and in response to Hamilton's earlier Hank Williamsesque statement, says, “Josh is the one that has to put a rest to the inquiries, not Ron Washington. I can just tell you one thing: It is not because he's hurt.”

Washington lacks Hamilton's gift for songwriting but makes up for it by coaxing his team to a crucial comeback win without assistance from its star. The Rangers still trail the series, 2-1, but have a four-game lead over the Angels, which is less than comfortable but more than the two-game lead that appeared inevitable throughout most of Wednesday evening's contest.

Final Tally, 8/1/12

Player

AB

R

H

2B

3B

HR

RBI

BB

K

Hamilton

5

0

0

0

0

0

0

0

2

Pujols

6

2

2

0

0

2

4

0

2

Fourth Verse
Like offense? The Angels led, 8-7, after five innings. They lost by six runs.

Game-time temperature is 102, down a few ticks from the previous two evenings. Pujols starts the scoring with a sacrifice fly to medium right against the recently acquired Dempster that scores the speedy Trout, who had doubled and advanced to third on a sacrifice bunt by Torii Hunter.

That's right. Mike Scioscia had the second batter of the game lay down a bunt. Because when you've scored 31 runs over the previous three games, you need to scrape for everything you can get.

Then again, if you're going to make someone bunt in the first, it might as well be Hunter, who criticized Scioscia earlier in the season for not employing said strategy in a similar situation. This still doesn't make it a smart move, but who's counting?

Pujols drives a two-out RBI double to right-center his next time up, in the third. He is getting into good counts tonight. His sac fly came on a 2-0 slider down and away. The double comes on a 2-2 slider up and away. Pujols has to reach for the pitch, and he doesn't get all of it, but he still hits it far enough to cut the Rangers' lead to 6-3.

The fifth inning begins with another Pujols hit, an infield single on a 2-0 fastball up and in. It jams him, but he makes solid enough contact to drive it to the left of Andrus, who dives but is unable to make the throw to first. Pujols later scores the Angels' eighth run.

After C.J. Wilson retires his former team in order in the bottom half, the Angels look to pad their lead against Oswalt, making his first relief appearance since October 3, 2010, and just the 14th of his big-league career. He was bumped from the rotation by Dempster, whose AL debut isn't exactly the pick-me-up the Rangers could have used.

Oswalt retires the Angels on eight pitches, the last of which results in a Pujols popup to second baseman Michael Young behind first base. Pujols swings at the first pitch, a 93-mph fastball up and in. Then, with Mark Trumbo—who hit his 28th homer of the season earlier in the contest—at the plate, Oswalt turns to check on the runner at first. Hunter has broken for second, and Oswalt flips to Young, who makes the easy tag to end the frame. As Hunter lamented back in April, “What can we do? All we do is play the game.”

Pujols grounds to short on an 0-1 slider down but over the plate from Mike Adams to end the eighth. After working counts earlier in the game, he sees a total of three pitches in his final two at-bats. The Angels trail, 12-8, and it will get worse.

Meanwhile, two days of not contributing seem to have refreshed Hamilton. After hitting a roller back to Wilson on a 1-1 two-seamer up in the first, he singles home two runs in the second. With the bases loaded and one out, Hamilton grounds the first pitch—a two-seamer down and in—between first and second to give his team a 4-2 lead.

Hamilton's next at-bat is leading off the fourth. With his team trailing by a run, he quickly falls behind in the count, 0-2. Hamilton fouls a ball off that is up and out of the strike zone but probably too close to let pass with two strikes. He then takes two hard breaking balls—PITCHf/x indicates that one is a slider, the other a cutter, but the two are nearly indistinguishable—that miss way outside. After fouling a 92-mph fastball straight back, Hamilton tries but fails to check his swing on a 79-mph curveball in the dirt.

In the sixth, with the score tied, a runner on second, and nobody out, Hamilton swings at an 0-1 curveball down and away. He grounds weakly to third on Wilson's final pitch of the game.

The Rangers pull ahead for good in the seventh. With two runs already in, Hamilton steps to the plate against southpaw Hisanori Takahashi, who leaves a 2-2 curveball in a comfortable place. Catcher Bobby Wilson sets up outside off the plate, but the ball stays on the inner half and Hamilton crushes it to right-center for a two-run ground-rule double. Earlier in the at-bat, Hamilton hit a 1-0 hanging curve with home-run distance foul down the right-field line.

Takahashi retires Hamilton to end the eighth, after Texas has scored three more runs. Hamilton gets ahead in the count, 2-1. He fouls off a couple of pitches, then flies out to right. His night is done, and his team—after Alberto Callaspo hits a meaningless solo homer in the ninth for the Angels—ends up splitting the series. The Rangers now lead the AL West by 4 ½ games. The A's have leapfrogged the Angels into second place.

The Angels head to Chicago for three against the AL Central-leading White Sox (where they will drop two out of three), then to Oakland for three in a battle for second place. And although this beats being nine games out 20 games into the season and having the team's right fielder complain about his manager's bunting strategy, it still isn't where the Angels planned to be after spending unfathomable amounts of money on Pujols and Wilson. And it isn't where they hoped to be after holding a 10-7 lead headed to the bottom of the 10th on Wednesday night.

On the bright side, Pujols is hitting. So are Trumbo, Trout, and Hunter. If Greinke can help boost a sagging rotation, this race could get interesting. But then, it already is.

Final Tally, 8/1/12

Player

AB

R

H

2B

3B

HR

RBI

BB

K

Hamilton

6

1

2

1

0

0

4

0

1

Pujols

4

1

2

1

0

0

2

0

0

Outro
On Friday, Hamilton reveals that he is trying to quit chewing tobacco. Again. This is the great mystery that had everyone fearing the worst. And while Hamilton's efforts to kick the habit are commendable, his choice to publicly disclose that he was withholding important information about some undefined personal issues caused understandable concern about the well-being of someone who once spent three years on baseball's restricted list. Not to trivialize Hamilton's plight, but as possible bad outcomes go, this has to have been far down everyone's list.

On the baseball side, the AL West remains tight. The Angels had a chance to put a dent in Texas' lead and failed. The Rangers fended off a relentless attack, particularly in Wednesday night's contest, where a few seemingly minor events had major implications. If Pujols hits Darvish's fourth-inning curveball a little harder, it's a 9-1 game and maybe extra innings aren't needed. If Scioscia pinch-runs for Morales in the ninth, maybe an eighth run scores and Kinsler's solo shot in the bottom half pulls the Rangers to within one rather than tying the game.

If, if, if.

Pujols struggles and narratives emerge. It is the contract. It is his age. Then he starts hitting like Pujols again, and all that disappears. Hamilton dominates, leading to different narratives. Then he struggles and makes a nebulous admission. Speculation abounds, and those that would feed off such things must be disappointed to learn how mundane his current battle is compared to what they may have imagined.

The world looks different in August than it does in May. And yet, except for a few details—names, events, etc.—it looks exactly the same. These are just more verses in a song that is still being written.

Final Tally, Series (Four Games)

Player

AB

R

H

2B

3B

HR

RBI

BB

K

Hamilton

19

4

6

2

0

1

5

0

3

Pujols

19

7

9

3

0

4

10

1

2

 

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