Commentary

30 Questions: What can be expected from Josh Hamilton in 2009?

Updated: March 11, 2009, 9:44 AM ET
By Tristan H. Cockcroft | ESPN.com

Thirty teams, 30 burning fantasy questions. Throughout the preseason, we put one of these questions to an ESPN.com analyst for an in-depth look at the most interesting, perplexing or dumbfounding fantasy facet of each major league team.

What will Josh Hamilton do for a follow-up?

When looking back at Josh Hamilton's extraordinary 2008 season, it's difficult not to gravitate toward his memorable performance in the Home Run Derby. A record 28 home runs in the first round? That's simply astonishing.

But there's a better reason I bring up Hamilton's Home Run Derby effort: It demonstrates almost perfectly the duality of his 2008 campaign.

On one hand, you've got a player who entered the All-Star break a top-five fantasy player overall, a certain first-round draft value who at the time led the majors in RBIs (95) and ranked fifth in total bases (208). Oh, and, of course, that first-round Derby outburst.

On the other, you've got a player who after the All-Star break was more of a fifth-round fantasy performer, driving in a mere 35 runs and ranking 38th in total bases (123). To complete the Derby parallel, while Hamilton didn't endure a miserable final round, his was somewhat nondescript: He hit three homers and lost to Justin Morneau.

The latter might be troubling enough to steer fantasy owners away from the prospects of the former. It's understandable; the second half of 2008 was more recent. It's fresher in our minds. Some might claim it the more accurate representation of Hamilton's talent.

And there's a problem with it: It's wrong.

Two things plagued Hamilton the second half of last season: bad luck and fatigue. The first is completely out of his control. The second is an area in which I think he can improve.

RBI misfortunes

In no other aspect of his game in 2008 did luck grab more hold of Hamilton than the RBI department. What else could possibly explain a swing of 60 -- 60! -- RBIs between the first and second halves? It was the perfect mix of good luck … and bad.

Sign up today for the most customizable free fantasy baseball game out there. You set the rules, scoring, everything. Sign up today!

Unfortunately, RBIs is one of the five primary Rotisserie hitting categories, and that swing helps explain in large part the difference in his pre- and post-All-Star break value. Take RBIs out of the equation, though, and Hamilton really wasn't all that much different a hitter:

Pre-break: 93 G, .310 BA, .367 OBP, .552 SLG
Post-break: 63 G, .296 BA, .376 OBP, .498 SLG

What was different the second half of that season -- or at least what I'd describe as most different -- was his supporting cast. Most notably, leadoff hitter Ian Kinsler missed the final 37 games of the season with a sports hernia. When you drop Kinsler and his .375 on-base percentage and are forced to plug in guys like Joaquin Arias (.345), Brandon Boggs (.333) and … gasp … Gerald Laird (.329, and yes, it happened twice), you're going to notice a drop-off in RBI production from your Nos. 3 and 4 hitters, especially one whose slugging percentage dipped 54 points after the break.

Take a look at Hamilton's statistics dependent upon Kinsler's starting status:

Kinsler games: 114 G, .309 BA, .375 OBP, .562 SLG, 1.03 games per RBI
Non-Kinsler games: 41 G, .295 BA, .361 OBP, .446 SLG, 2.16 games per RBI

And it runs deeper than Kinsler. Accounting for all of Hamilton's 2008 starts, here are his numbers broken down by combined on-base percentages of all the men slotted ahead of him in the lineup in any given game:

OBP of .350 or higher: 109 G, .310 BA, .369 OBP, .559 SLG, 1.01 games per RBI (Note: Every one of these games had Kinsler leading off)
OBP of .340 to .349: 31 G, .296 BA, .371 OBP, .472 SLG, 1.94 games per RBI
OBP beneath .340: 15 G, .286 BA, .385 OBP, .446 SLG, 2.50 games per RBI

Now, those latter two groups do represent small sample sizes, and many of them did come after the All-Star break, when, again, Hamilton's slugging percentage was 54 points lower than before. Nevertheless, I'd have said his level of RBI production was quite fortunate in Kinsler games, and unfortunate in the ones Kinsler missed, with the "luck" factors almost equal in weight. With a little regression to the mean in both cases, I don't see any reason he can't come close to or exceed last season's 130 RBIs.

Josh Hamilton
Christian Petersen/Getty ImagesJosh Hamilton is a borderline first-round option in most fantasy leagues.

As for the remainder of the Rotisserie departments, the whole-season 2008 Hamilton package offered nothing but encouraging signs. Most notably, he eliminated his key weakness, his performance against left-handers, going from a .222 batting average and .588 OPS against them in 2007 to .288 and .801 last season. He also improved his contact rate from 78.2 percent to 79.8, and belted 32 home runs despite seeing his home runs-per-fly ball percentage drop from 24.4 to 19.2 from 2007 to '08.

Hamilton also turns 28 in May, meaning he's in the prime of his career, one entering only its third full season at that. The chance for a repeat or improvement has to be considered far greater than that of regression.

Health and stamina

Addressing that possibility of improvement, Hamilton's health is his most-cited criticism. Those who doubt him point out that he missed 45 games of disabled-list time during his rookie year of 2007 with stomach and wrist injuries, and another 17 at year's end due to a hamstring problem. They'll also argue Hamilton's decline in performance after the All-Star break last season -- no matter how small -- is a lingering example of his lack of durability.

But here's a novel idea: Why can't we regard Hamilton's 2008 as growth in that department? If he didn't play a game in 2006, battled minor, nagging injuries in 2007 and then stayed healthy for all of 2008 but suffered late-season effects of fatigue, why can't we assume the next logical step is a healthy, consistent 2009 from half to half?

In attempting to find the answer to that question, I conferred with our injury guru, Stephania Bell, who indicated that kind of career progression is a possibility. She noted that in the two-plus years since Hamilton has stayed clean and resumed playing in professional games, his body might be adapting better to the wear and tear of baseball's daily grind. On the flip side, however, the multiple years that he was out of the game dealing with drug addiction might have actually aged his body more rapidly. In other words, as he continues on this growth curve, Hamilton might increasingly strengthen his performance … but edge ever more quickly to his breakdown/career-decline phase.

"If I was charting him out for 10 years," said Bell, "I'd expect him to peak at some point soon and then drop off."

That's something for keeper-league owners to keep in mind, as it seems Hamilton might be a smarter short- than long-term investment. As for the issue of his Achilles injury early this spring, Bell echoed the Rangers' sentiments that it's a minor issue. Those evaluating Hamilton's draft value shouldn't take it much into account.

Another point about fatigue: It should really be regarded a natural thing for Rangers players. One hundred-degree heat and the draining summer sun have a way of wearing them down, and the statistics back that up. In the past five seasons combined, Rangers hitters have batted .274 with a .795 OPS and a one home run-per-26.5 at-bat ratio before the All-Star break; after it their numbers in those categories are .268, .780 and 27.7.

With a summer's experience playing in Texas, Hamilton should be better equipped to hold up to an entire 162-game schedule. That'd ring especially true should Andruw Jones prove capable of manning center field, allowing Hamilton to shift to less-taxing right field.

Can Hamilton maintain his 2008 pre-break performance over an entire, healthy 2009? Maybe asking a .310-35-160 campaign -- his first-half numbers projected to a full year -- is a bit much, but those do represent his upside.

Hamilton probably presents fantasy owners a little more risk than your typical late-first-round pick, but I'd argue the reward exceeds that of a Chase Utley or Lance Berkman, the two hitters being selected closest to him in average live drafts. I'd argue he belongs closer to the No. 8-9 range -- right around Miguel Cabrera/Mark Teixeira levels.

Tristan H. Cockcroft is a fantasy baseball, football and hockey analyst for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.