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: