Sports

Josh Hamilton's season-long slump has the Angels concerned

Josh HamiltonBaseballSportsAlbert PujolsChone FigginsVernon WellsMike Scioscia

CLEVELAND — At least with Albert Pujols the Angels can point to the excruciating pain he felt in his left heel, which finally gave out on July 26, and a sore right knee as tangible reasons for his career-low average and on-base and slugging percentages.

And they can have a realistic hope that, with a full recovery, Pujols can be a force on offense in 2014. Even with injuries weakening his foundation, he was on pace for 27 homers and 102 runs batted in when he tore his plantar fascia, proof there is still some thunder in his bat.

But what about Josh Hamilton, whose early struggles have devolved into a full-blown, season-long slump? What do we make of a five-time All-Star who, after signing a five-year, $125-million deal, is hitting .218 with a .275 OBP, .404 slugging percentage, 17 homers, 54 RBIs and 113 strikeouts, yet has had no major injuries?

Is this a fluke, a down year that Hamilton, 32, will bounce back from? Or is this as good as it's going to get for Hamilton, who often looks overmatched at the plate?

Hamilton's paltry numbers look eerily similar to what the overpaid Vernon Wells produced in 2011 and 2012 — occasional pop, awful everything else. The scary part for the Angels: Hamilton is signed for four more years at $25 million a year, one-sixth of the team's payroll.

"I've struggled in life, but I've never not succeeded in the game, from the time I was 3 years old to now," said Hamilton, who was banned from baseball from 2003 to 2005 because of an addiction to cocaine and alcohol. "God takes you out of your comfort zone sometimes to help you grow."

The Angels don't need personal growth from Hamilton. They need offense, the kind he provided from 2008 to 2012 in Texas, where he had a .305/.363/.549 slash line and averaged 28 homers and 101 RBIs a year.

"I'm very confident he'll rebound," Manager Mike Scioscia said. "Nobody has a crystal ball, but I can't imagine, with his bat speed still what it is, him being as athletic as he's ever been, that this is something that will play out in anything but a positive way."

This is what perplexes coaches and scouts about the 6-foot-4, 225-pound Hamilton. They still see the skills that made him the best player in baseball in the first two months of 2012, when he hit .368 with 21 homers and 57 RBIs, and they're baffled as to why he's done a Chone Figgins-like nose dive.

"There's no doubt his approach is more sensitive to timing than other hitters," Scioscia said. "That's something he's struggled with for a while."

It shows in the numbers. According to Fangraphs, 41.9% of the pitches Hamilton has swung at are out of the strike zone, the fourth-worst mark in the league. His 16.4% swinging-strike percentage is the highest in the league. He's hitting .171 against left-handers and .172 with runners in scoring position.

"It's a typical pitching pattern that gets him out — left-handed breaking balls down and away, right-handed changeups down and away," one major league scout said. "There's just not a whole lot of adjustments going on."

This pattern started in 2012 when Hamilton, after his torrid start, began chasing pitches and hit .245 with 22 homers and 71 RBIs in the final four months. He battled withdrawal symptoms after he quit chewing tobacco in July and vision problems caused by excessive caffeine consumption.

"This wasn't just something that happened in April," another scout said. "He wasn't very good in the second half last year."

Hamilton's struggles have played with his psyche.

"When things are feeling good and you're not getting results, people want to find a specific problem, like I'm swinging at pitches out of the zone, I'm impatient, I'm moving my hands, my head," he said. "Mine is thinking too much. When you start looking for a problem, it creates problems. That's where we're at."

There have been times Hamilton looks something like the Josh of old, such as the 15-game stretch from June 25 to July 12 when he hit .339 with four homers and 14 RBIs, but he can't sustain that good feeling at the plate for long.

Hamilton went two for 26 on the Angels' last homestand before hitting a three-run homer — his fourth off a left-hander this season — in Friday night's win over Cleveland.

"You know what you've done, what you're capable of doing, but it's frustrating," Hamilton said. "It's hard to have confidence when you're not succeeding."

If Hamilton is to regain his stroke, he must regain his swagger.

"Very few players, especially veterans, will admit it, but there's a confidence variable in the equation," Scioscia said. "Right now, Josh has confidence he's a good player, but maybe not the confidence that he's locked in and he's going to stay there. He has to build that."

mike.digiovanna@latimes.com

Twitter: @MikeDiGiovanna

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Josh HamiltonBaseballSportsAlbert PujolsChone FigginsVernon WellsMike Scioscia
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