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November 29, 2012
How Will Josh Hamilton Age?
At some point this winter, a team with money to spend and an opening in the outfield for a big left-handed bat will make Josh Hamilton a very wealthy man. With the Winter Meetings approaching and some big names already off the board, the baseball world is wondering “When?” and “How Wealthy?” Hamilton’s home run totals and 2010 MVP season make him one of the most enticing talents on the market, but his age, injury record, history of substance abuse, and performance away from the hitter’s parks he’s called home give general managers plenty of reasons to think twice before committing to a long-term contract.
We can tack on yet another concern to that long list of red flags: Hamilton is not a patient hitter. Over the course of his career, he’s struck out at an above-average rate and walked at a (barely) below-average rate, despite the fact that pitchers have plenty of incentive to stay away from his power. Last season, his tendency to swing (and chase) grew much more pronounced, while his contact percentage plummeted.
Because Hamilton doesn’t add any value via the walk, most of his offensive performance hinges on what happens when he makes contact. The outcome of a batted ball is dependent on two things: speed, and quality of contact. Speed peaks early—perhaps even before the age at which Hamilton made it to the majors—but the early 30s are when bat speed starts to slip and reaction time suffers. If Hamilton had better command of the strike zone, his ability to take walks could compensate for his inevitable declines in other areas. As it is, his offensive value is closely tied to skills that soon start to fade in free agents of a certain age.
Earlier this year, I wrote about the six-year, $85.5 million extension a somewhat similar player, Adam Jones, received from the Orioles. Jones walks less often than Hamilton and hits for less power, but both players generally fit the low-walk, high-power profile, with roughly the same career strikeout rate.
To see what effect a low walk rate might have on how a player ages, I looked for hitters with power production similar to Jones’ through May (and, as it happens, Hamilton’s) and divided them into two groups, one for those who walked in less than 10 percent of their plate appearances and another for those who made it over that mark.
What I found was that after a certain age, the low-walk hitters aged worse than the high-walk group. Not only did their production per plate appearance suffer a steeper drop, but their playing time tailed off more quickly, too. Because Jones was still just 26 when his extension was signed, I concluded that despite his impatient profile, the deal made sense for Baltimore:
Hamilton’s employer, however, won’t have that luxury: his prime production is already past, and his decline phase is about to begin in earnest. According to BP’s John Perrotto, Hamilton’s asking price as of earlier this month was seven years and $175 million. Here are Hamilton’s statistics from 2012, along with the stats projected for his next seven seasons by BP’s projection system, PECOTA:
These projections don’t incorporate the potential effects of Hamilton’s past struggles with substance abuse or build in any risk of a relapse, since we can’t quantify those factors precisely. Suffice it to say that if we could, they wouldn’t improve his odds of aging well. Even without accounting for those variables, though, PECOTA projects that Hamilton would be close to a replacement-level player by the end of the seven-year contract he covets, totaling 15.3 WARP over the life of the deal.
If we set the current going rate for a free-agent win at $5 million and factor in a conservative five percent annual inflation rate, a win would cost $7 million on the open market by the end of the deal. All told, that 15.3 WARP would translate to just over $85 million in value. Given the recent increase in league-wide revenue from television contracts and the CBA changes that limit spending in other areas, the inflation rate over that span may significantly exceed five percent, but even if we peg the average value of a free-agent win over the next seven seasons at $7 million, the total value climbs to only $107 million or so.
PECOTA bases part of its projection on how comparable players have performed in the past. While the pool of players compared to Hamilton includes some encouraging names, two of his top comps—Ken Griffey Jr. and Andruw Jones—lived the sort of nightmare scenarios that can’t be far from the minds of Hamilton’s suitors. Both players were superstars through age 30, but a combination of injuries, poor conditioning, and eroding skills made them only marginally productive after they’d passed that point. Griffey played through age 40 but accumulated only 8.2 WARP of his 79.2 career total after age 31, while Jones has amassed just 2.5 WARP in his age-32-35 seasons. Hamilton isn’t doomed to suffer a similar fate, but those examples remind us of how quickly a productive player can become an albatross.
Earlier this week, Buster Olney wrote that the market for Hamilton has been slow to develop, noting that teams appear to be wary of extending an offer longer than four years. A four-year contract would take Hamilton through 2016 and, according to our conservative model, be worth just over $64 million. Raise the four-year average value of a win to $7 million, and the most reasonable sum rises to $84 million, or $21 annually through age 35—coincidentally or not, the same age at which PECOTA expects Hamilton to be an above-average player for the final time. A team on the October bubble might be willing to pay a premium for his short-term production, but for most clubs, that looks like a prudent place to draw the line.
Colin Wyers provided research assistance for this story.
A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider .