It's hard to think of a way that Josh Hamilton could be a more interesting free agent. He could announce that he will only sign with a team that will also use him as a situational lefty reliever. He could be a performance artist who wants to burn the money. As is, he's a preternaturally talented athlete with injury concerns and a completely unique personal history. He'll be the most interesting free agent of the decade, if not of our lifetimes.
Actually, strike that. There was a way he could have been more interesting. On May 12, Hamilton hit a solo home run that was his ninth homer in six games. His line to that point: .402/.457/.877. That's an .877 slugging percentage -- it'd be a good OPS for a corner outfielder, but it was just his slugging percentage. If Hamilton continued with the record-setting season, he would have been an even more interesting case. He was a decent bet for the Triple Crown at one point.
Hamilton's numbers since June 1: .204/.289/.401. No one really expected him to sustain that pace, but I'm not sure anyone expected him to fall off a cliff.
The gaudy slugging percentage from the first two months became something you'd expect from a middle infielder. And Hamilton's approach has been especially discouraging; he's walked 17 times and struck out 52 times in 152 at-bats since the start of June. Nolan Ryan's taking notice:
You’re right that some of his at bats aren’t very impressive from the standpoint that he doesn’t work deep into the count, he’s swinging at a lot of bad pitches, he just doesn’t seem to be locked in at all. So what you’re hoping is that his approach will change and he’ll start giving quality at bats because there’s a lot of those at bats that he just gives away. One of the things I’ve always commented on is I can’t ever say that I ever saw Henry [Hank] Aaron give an at bat away.
Among qualified hitters, no one swings at more pitches out of the strike zone than Hamilton. He's always been a free swinger, but this year is an extreme outlier compared to his past swing rates. That's a concern, all right. Still, the odds are good that Hamilton will snap out of the slump, and he'll produce at a rate closer to what the Rangers expected this season.
But there's another reason Hamilton will be a fascinating free agent: Whatever contract he signs will be a disaster.
One of the most compelling arguments I've read in the past few years against a big, multi-year contract came from Adam J. Morris at Lone Star Ball. I'd wager that nothing would make Morris happier than Hamilton producing at a Hall of Fame level with the Rangers for the next ten years. Maybe Hamilton will age gracefully. Heck, if the Indians signed Jim Thome to a 10-year deal when he was 31, they would have been mostly pleased with the results.
Except Hamilton isn't Thome. He's a different kind of hitter. And that's what makes Morris skeptical of a long-term deal to Hamilton:
(Hamilton has) survived, and thrived, because of incredible natural talent and hand-eye coordination. He's thrived despite a terrible approach at the plate. Its worked for him, so far.
But Hamilton looks to me to be the type of player who, once his bat slows even a fractional amount, is going to slip quickly.
That was written in 2011, and the post charts the progress of his O-Swing percentage -- the number of pitches he swings at out of the zone. It was 26.9 percent in 2007, and it's been steadily climbing. When the post was written, Hamilton had just finished a season with a career-high 40.8 percent O-Swing. That's up to 46.1 percent this year. You don't need a degree from M.I.T. to know that's a disturbing trend.
The names that Morris brings up are the ones you'd expect: Vladimir Guerrero and Alfonso Soriano. Both of those players were All-Stars when they were Hamilton's age, 31. Both of them picked up more than a few MVP votes in their age-31 seasons. Both of them were shells of their former shelves in two or three years.
The Rangers know this. They're a smart team. But when Hamilton was going insane and captivating the baseball world over the first two months, you had to think there were doubts. They certainly had to rejigger their projections of Hamilton's worth to add in the public-relations damage that might be done if the reigning 2012 MVP went to the Angels or Red Sox. They had to wonder if Hamilton was going to age like a fine, freakishly athletic wine. When he was going Bonds on the world, a $200 million contract didn't seem so ludicrous. It's possible that the Rangers were quietly entertaining the idea.
With the slump, though, everything goes back to normal. Hamilton isn't a god. He's a fantastic, talented player who is flawed in a way that can't be expected to age well. The Rangers can approach this like they were planning to in the first place. Which isn't to say they won't entertain re-signing him at all. They'll be competitive. They'll make a concerted effort. But when the bidding gets silly -- looking at you, Dodgers -- expect the Rangers to back away slowly, hands in the air.
Things were a little weird for a bit. Hamilton was making them weird by being the greatest hitter on the planet. And however the Rangers were going to approach Hamilton before the season is probably how they're going to approach him now. For a while, they had to rethink everything they thought they knew. Things are back to where they were supposed to be. And the Rangers aren't happy about that, but they're probably a little happy about that.