Once again the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim have swooped in to land the biggest free agent catch of the off-season. This time they also put the hurt on their divisional rivals the Texas Rangers and grabbed headlines from their resurgent neighbors up the 405 freeway, the Los Angeles Dodgers of Los Angeles.
Josh Hamilton is an intriguing and provocative figure. He was the American League Most Valuable Player in 2010 and the MLB batting king with a .359 average. In 2012 he started the season like a house on fire, putting up 21 home runs, 57 RBI and an On-base-plus-Slugging (OPS) average over 1.18, all that in April and May. He crashed to earth in June and July amid reports of chewing tobacco withdrawal and unsavory episodes with alcohol at local “gentleman’s clubs”. Hamilton’s back story is compelling, his career was almost ruined by drug and alcohol abuse and he became renowned for finding salvation through faith and a straight and narrow path.
To his credit, he rebounded with stronger showings in August and September, although he slumped in the last week as the Rangers lost their grip on the American League West crown they had won the previous two seasons, and he made an egregious and uncharacteristic fielding error in game 162 at Oakland as the upstart Athletics stunned the Rangers with a three-game sweep to win the gonfalon. To compound matters, Hamilton had a terrible Wild Card game against the similarly-upstart Baltimore Orioles, going zero for four at-bats as the Rangers were summarily eliminated from the post-season, all this after two consecutive (and one heart-breaking) trips to the World Series.
Contemporary baseball performance analysis eschews terms like “clutch” and results-oriented evaluations in general and focuses instead on process: in the pivotal Game Six of the 2011 World Series when the St. Louis Cardinals stunningly tied the Rangers in the bottom of the ninth, Hamilton put the Rangers ahead in the 10th with a two-run homer (that WAS clutch); in the 2012 Wild Card game, Hamilton had zero hits in four at-bats but more troublingly, he saw only eight pitches; he was overeager, not selective, and chased pitches he would normally not swing at. He was that way the last 10 games of the season, too. Results can be ephemeral or have an element of randomness: a well-struck ball can be hit right at a defender; swinging at bad pitches, however, almost guarantees strikeouts, weakly hit balls, double play grounders, pop-ups, etc. Hamilton was booed at The Ballpark at Arlington in his last game there as a home-town hero, an uncharacteristic event to be sure. It’s no wonder that Sports Illustrated’s cover story earlier this year was titled “The Fragile Brilliance of Josh Hamilton”.
Reports are now that it was Angels’ ownership, the redoubtable Arte Moreno, who overrode the objections of his baseball people to make the five year, $125 million dollar offer to Hamilton. Of the things we do know is it gives the Angels a fearsome lineup, it weakens the Rangers, and it took the headlines away from the Dodgers who unveiled their own prize earlier in the week, former Angels pitcher Zack Greinke.