No, I will never get tired of using the above Josh Hamilton picture nor will I ever get tired of trying to figure out what caused his performance to fall off so sharply in 2013. There might not be a tougher, more mysterious player in the majors to project right now than Hamilton. As challenging as that figures to be, I'm going to give it a try anyway.
*The MWAH projections are simply my best guess based off my own personal opinion and research (my wOBA calculation is approximate because my math skills are only "meh")
What happened in 2013?
What happened? Only Josh knows and he would probably tell you that only Jesus knows and Jesus would probably tell you
that he doesn't actually exist that even he isn't entirely sure what caused Hamilton to collapse in such grand fashion. 2013 was far and away Hamilton's worst season (on the field, anyway). His average, BABIP and OBP were career worsts and his wRC+, wOBA, WAR, walk rate, strikeout rate and isolated power came awfully close to career worsts.
As bad as his numbers were, things looked even worse to the naked eye. Hamilton spent the first half of the season looking completely overmatched at the plate. There were periods where it felt like the MLB GameDay should've pre-loaded this pitch sequence the instant Hamilton stepped to the plate:
Pitch 1: Swinging Strike (breaking ball, in the dirt)
Pitch 2: Swinging Strike (breaking ball, in the dirt)
Pitch 3: Swinging Strike (breaking ball, in the dirt)
Things got better for Hamilton in the second half of the season, which is a sign of hope, but perhaps a false sign. Hamilton walked a little bit more in the second half while striking out less, but still striking out A LOT. His ISO actually dropped a few points in the second. Really the only big difference was that Josh saw his BABIP go from .263 to .359 as he turned lowered his groundball rate and increased his line drive rate. So, maybe the BABIP increase was real, but maybe it was at least partially just his luck evening out.
The only good news, which kind of isn't good news in the context of the matter, is that Hamilton stayed pretty healthy. His 151 games played were the second-most he's played in a season. Of course, that also means that we can't blame poor health for his struggles.
What do the projections think he will do in 2014?
Some have tabbed Hamilton as a bounceback candidate in 2014, but the projection systems think those people can go suck an egg. The systems suggest that Hamilton should improve a little bit, but not all that much. The rosiest scenario comes from CAIRO forecasting him for a .345 wOBA. That's fine, but it isn't the performance level he is being paid for. On the flip side, Oliver actually sees Hamilton continuing to decline with a .313 wOBA and 100 wRC+. That will be just barely good enough to keep him in the lineup, but also keep him firmly in the crosshairs of all the boo birds.
The most disturbing consensus amongst the systems is that they all see Hamilton continuing to strikeout at a high rate and not recovering the power he had in Texas. The power is what the Angels really want, so they could live with the whiffs if they come with dingers, but it doesn't look like that will be the case.
Does the Monkey agree or disagree?
I'm not ready to write off Hamilton yet, but I'm also not ready to declare him fixed. Some of his issues at the plate are fixable, but at a point we have to admit that he has been broken for a year and half, so whatever fixes are even available to him aren't going to come easily.
I am willing to entertain the idea that his dramatic weight loss was at least partially responsible for his loss of power. We expected a drop off going from Arlington to Anaheim, but not a drop off that meant his average flyball distance would drop by 30 feet. I'm not foolish enough to say that is all due to him not having as much bulk, but it probably didn't help.
Similarly, I can buy that his issues with moving his family were a distraction. If there is one thing we know about Hamilton, it is that his mental comfort level is kind of a fragile thing. Family is huge for him, so I don't think it is a coincidence that his play improved once his family got settled in to a home that apparently wasn't overrun by rats.
The most encouraging aspect for me though is that Hamilton finally seems open to change in his approach. He has always been a guy who would swing and miss a lot, but it worked for him. He's kind of a special unicorn in that way. His swing rate last season wasn't even that out of whach with his career norms. The problem was that he didn't make contact as much, especially out of the zone. Comments Josh made this offseason suggest he finally is wising up to that. Having Don Baylor around as a guy that Josh might actually listen to should help as well.
What are the known unknowns?
The one issue that I am dubious about him resolving is that he was utterly helpless against southpaws last year. He posted a .257 wOBA, 31.1 K% and 4.1 BB% against left-handers in 2013. That's pathetic and really makes me wish the Angels had a platoon complement for Hamilton on their roster. He'd hit lefties well previously in his career, so history is on his side, but that history was also during a time in which Hamilton had not yet begun to flail in the batter's box at an alarming rate.
The rest of the unknowns are just that Hamilton is an enigma. He's added the weight back. Great. Will it help his hitting? Maybe. Hopefully, We're not sure. Will it lead to him getting hurt more? Possibly. Probably. We're not sure.
The fact of the matter is that Hamilton has a crazy history and is about to turn 33. Decline is to be expected and as much as we might want to believe he is a 21st century version of Roy Hobbes, his natural talent is going to fade at some point. If we are honest with ourselves, it is probably already happening and he just doesn't know how to adjust to playing with a diminishing skillset. At the core, it could just be that Hamilton has always been a hitting savant and would swing at whatever he wanted and it just worked. Now he is losing his superpowers and doesn't know how to operate as a mortal. Maybe he can go the Torii Hunter route, adjust and thrive into his mid-thirties. But he might also just be stubborn and fall off a cliff.