Underrating Josh Hamilton

Prior to the season, I posted a list of the 100 best baseball players going into 2012. I never expected my list to correlate perfectly with the results from the first six weeks of the baseball season, but I wouldn’t have guessed that the player I ranked #1 would suffer a serious injury in April (after tearing the cover off the ball for 23 games), that the guy I ranked #7 would be hitting .186 to this point, or that the guy I had 16th (and ESPN had first) would hit his first homer on May 6th.

I have little doubt that those three guys (Longoria, Bautista, and Pujols, if you didn’t follow the link) will bounce back, if not quite far enough to justify my rankings of them. That’s not to say I don’t have any regrets about where I ranked a few players. I ranked Matt Kemp sixth, and he’s building a pretty strong case as the best player in baseball. I’m typically higher on Felix Hernandez and Zack Greinke than others are, but I probably could have ranked them higher than 19th and 26th, respectively. Jon Lester and Tim Lincecum probably aren’t better than Cole Hamels.

If I’m allowed one mulligan, though, I’ll take it on my ranking of Josh Hamilton. I put Hamilton 46th, behind outfielders Shane Victorino, Matt Holliday, Curtis Granderson, and Alex Gordon, among others. My rankings were based on fangraphs’ WAR over the past three years, and a projection of 2012 WAR based on age and trajectory. Hamilton will turn 32 later this month, and after leading all of baseball with 8.5 WAR in 2010, he dropped to 4.2 in an injury-riddled 2011. He plays more left field than center now, has played more than 133 games only once in his career, and has never hit more than 32 home runs despite playing his home games in the most hitter-friendly park in the AL. Objectively, I can see why I wasn’t high on him in March.

Since opening day, Hamilton has made a fool of me rather consistently. Sure, a four-homer game is an isolated event, and we shouldn’t make too much of small sample sizes, but through 33 team games (30 of which he’s played), he has 17 home runs, which puts him on pace to hit 83 on the season. He’s batting .407/.463/.873, creating 153% more runs than the average hitter. Fangraphs credits Hamilton with 3.1 WAR, another record-setting pace.

Obviously, Hamilton’s not going to hit 83 homers or slug .873 all year. He’ll go through a slump or two, and even if he’s not taken down by a major injury, he’ll need more rest as the Texas sun continues to beat down on him nine innings a day. Still, ZIPS projects him to finish at .328/.386/.626, which may give him his second MVP in three years. 45 home runs are not out of the question. If he stays healthy, it’s hard to argue that Hamilton’s not one of the 10 best players in baseball. Even if we factor in a DL trip every year, he’s probably top 20.

I put four of Hamilton’s Ranger teammates ahead of him in my preseason rankings: Ian Kinsler, Adrian Beltre, Mike Napoli, and Yu Darvish. I don’t necessarily regret this, as these are great players. Kinsler and Beltre offer a lot of value with their gloves, and Kinsler may be the game’s best baserunner. Much of Napoli’s value comes from positional scarcity (no catcher hits like him, though Carlos Ruiz has so far this year). Darvish has shown flashes of the ace he’s likely to become. Still, I have a feeling if you asked any of those players who the most indispensable player on the team is, they’d probably all name Hamilton.

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One Response to Underrating Josh Hamilton

  1. I probably wouldn’t have disagreed with your ranking Hamilton so low at the beginning of the year, but he’s spent his entire life coming back and proving people wrong, so we’ve nothing to be ashamed about. A second MVP award, as you suggest, may already be in the bag. If so, like Dale Murphy, he’ll have to get some HOF consideration. But also like Murphy, he may not put together quite enough great seasons to actually make it in.
    Nice read, Bill

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