The impending Josh Hamilton contract used to fascinate me. Last year at this time, Hamilton was hitting .900/.910/2.190, a pending free agent, and a fella with a back story that made him different from past superstars on the market.
By the end of the year, though, Hamilton exhibited the cons to his pros, and suddenly the impending contract wasn't nearly as interesting. He struck out in over a third of his plate appearances in September, committed some memorable gaffes in the outfield, and ended the season with very good, but not gaudy, numbers. He eventually signed for five years and $133 million -- reasonable in length, if not amount.
This is what he's done with his new team:
As you would expect with walk/strikeout numbers that out of whack, the problem has been plate discipline.
Swings at pitches out of the strike zone
2010: 35.9 (14th)
2011: 36.7 (12th)
2012: 42.3 (2nd)
2013: 41.3 (3rd)
Contact with pitches out of the strike zone
So he's gotten worse over the last three years, but it's not like his hacking this year is much different than it was last year.
If you're looking for physical reasons, don't look at Hamilton's current struggles with the poison air of California. The struggles were there before the allergies. Scioscia might attribute the struggles to Josh being Josh ...
"I don't think (hitting in front of Albert Pujols) is going to make much of a difference in the way Josh is pitched," Scioscia said.
"Josh's game is Josh's game."
See? A tautology. Josh gonna Josh. Don't mind Josh. He's going to be all Josh until he's good Josh, then you'll wonder how you ever Joshed without Josh.
Except there are five more years of this. Well, four-and-three-quarters, at least. Which brings us to the question posed in the headline: What kind of contract would you offer Josh Hamilton if he were magically a free agent tomorrow?
We did this last year with Albert Pujols in the middle of his wretched start. A plurality of people who voted in the poll suggested that Pujols would get something closer to the contract Hamilton eventually got from the Angels -- just four or five years, albeit for more than $100 million. Pujols finished the season like a monster, especially considering how extreme Angel Stadium played last year. He probably wouldn't have gotten a nine-year deal after last year, but he still would have been paid handsomely.
Of course, he's struggling again. Just eight-and-a-half years to go, Angels. But that's not the point. Moving on.
If you look at the plate-discipline numbers up there, you might not think Hamilton's gotten worse -- just his luck has. What's his batting average on balls in play?, the optimist asks. Good question. It's .259, which is almost 80 points lower than his career mark. Some (most?) of that might be attributable to weaker contact, but it's at least a hint that when it rains on a player in a slump, it pours.
If you're looking for an a-ha moment -- "The league figured him out, and now they're throwing fewer strikes!" -- it's not there. Hamilton's seeing as many pitches out of the zone as he has for the last few years.
Really, the question is just code for "How much are you reading into Josh Hamilton's struggles?" If you would give him the exact same contract -- five years, $133 million -- you're not fazed by his small-sample struggles.
I wouldn't want the Giants to sign him for five years, $133 million, though. Goodness, no. You just made a who-would-do-that-on-a-crowded-elevator face, too, when thinking about your team.
Hamilton has as much natural ability as anyone I've ever watched. If the league has adjusted to him, he still has the natural ability to respond and adjust. For the short-term, I'm not ready to bury him just yet.
Thinking about a 35-year-old Hamilton, though, is terrifying. When see-ball-swing-bat hitters age, they do it less than gracefully. There's a tipping point where the natural ability just isn't enough to counteract the undisciplined approach. If it's appropriate to think that about a 35-year-old, though, why not a 32-year-old? How about an oft-injured 32-year-old? How about an oft-injured 32-year-old who did some pretty rough things to his body when he was young?
So give me three years, $75 million. That's superstar money, and it would get the short-term production of Hamilton while acknowledging the likelihood of a short shelf life. Sort of like the deal the Angels was supposed to be. Except once Hamilton gave up the near-guarantee of short-term production, well, the willingness to eat some of the back end just shrank a little.
The Hamilton deal wasn't a spit-take deal like Pujols's was. But if the Angels could do it over right now, they'd probably do it just a little differently.