The list of Texas Rangers legends looks unfortunately a bit weak compared to most major league franchises. There have certainly been some great players, but only one has ever worn the Rangers T on his Cooperstown plaque, and even he put up most of his great years elsewhere. On the horizon, only Ivan Rodriguez looks to add to that number. Most of the greatest seasons in Rangers history have either been filled by great players like Fergie Jenkins and Alex Rodriguez, who, like Ryan, simply made Texas a short stop on their Hall of Fame careers with other teams, or players like Buddy Bell and Michael Young, who would make up the ranks of the proverbial Hall of Very Good.
For many franchises, a mere MVP season in a year that included a handful of post season victories barely registers on the radar, if at all. You have got to put up a bit more than one great year with the Cardinals or the A's or the Reds or the Orioles (not even mentioning the obvious team). But those teams are not the Rangers, and Josh Hamilton instantly vaulted himself in to the status of legend for his franchise in 2010.
The greatness of Hamilton's 2010, of course, did not go unreported. But, in case you were under a rock, decided to become a Rangers fan today, or just really, really like remembering how awesome it was, here goes:
In 2010, Josh Hamilton was probably the best player in baseball. He won the batting title by thirty-one points. He hit 32 home runs and didn't even need 600 plate appearances to do it. His 1.044 OPS also led the league. His .447 weighted On Base Average was the best in the AL by nearly 20 points, and while that was certainly inflated by playing his home games in Rangers' Ballpark in Arlington, his park-adjusted wRC+ was still the best in baseball, and the only players within 10 points of him were first basemen. Hamilton played the outfield, and did so a reputedly high level.
He was incredible. Especially when you consider it primarily came over the course of three months. Through May, Hamilton had a relatively-pedestrian .353 wOBA, barely above average once you consider the ballpark, and he missed nearly the entire month of September. From June through August, he put on a show like Rangers fans have never seen, seemingly destroying any baseball that came near his bat, and catching any ball that drifted to left or center field.
He scored from second base on an infield single!
All told, Hamilton's value in 2010 was astronomical. FanGraphs put his offense as having been worth close to sixty more runs than you could expect from an average hitter. Combined with the value of an outfielder and his defense, they put that value as having been worth eight wins more for the squad than a scrub replacement could have contributed. In other words, without Hamilton, the Rangers would have likely struggled with the A's all season, rather than running away with their first division title in more than a decade. The three years Alex Rodriguez played in Texas -- likely three best regular seasons the franchise has seen -- range from 7.8 Wins Above Replacement to 9.8 on FanGraphs. However, while Hamilton fell a bit short of 9.8 thanks to a slow start and injury, Rodriguez never played a playoff game for the Rangers, let alone hit four home runs off the Yankees in an ALCS while getting on base more than half the time to lead the team to its first ever World Series birth.
In short, as spring training 2011 picks up momentum in Surprise, Ariz., Josh Hamilton may be coming off the greatest season in the history of his franchise. Even with merely a very good 2008 and a very disappointing 2009, he has stamped his name on franchise lore.
So, what does he do for an encore?
Unfortunately, like so many sequels, he probably will fail to repeat the same level of success. For one reason, a lot of Hamilton's 2010 numbers were likely due to some good fortune. For one, there is a hefty red flag raised by the number of balls Hamilton put in play that managed to fall in for hits: 39%. While that is a part of the game that hitters have more control over than pitchers, no one has played multiple seasons over the last three years and maintained better than a 36% rate, and Hamilton's career number sits at .344. His explosion was not aided by a dramatic increase in line drive rate, either. An increased willingness to go the other way certainly may have helped, of course, and there is plenty of reason to think Hamilton might be closer to the .360 that Shin-Soo Choo has put up over the last three years than the .344 career rate he has put up thanks to an abysmal 2009, but reproducing a .390 Batting Average on Balls In Play is extremely unlikely. With fewer balls falling for hits, all the averages obviously drop, and so does the run production.
There is also the concern over Hamilton's health, where he seems to be a ticking time bomb for injury (a recurring theme among Rangers stars). Hamilton managed just 133 games last year, after appearing in just 89 in 2009, and 90 as a rookie in 2007. He played in 156 games his break out 2004 season, so there is no reason to assume he can not put in a full season's work load, but history says it is also fairly unlikely.
The injury concerns also diminish his value from where it could be. Hamilton is more than athletic enough to handle centerfield without much concern, and if he could it would be great for the Rangers, pushing Julio Borbon out of an every day role and allowing David Murphy to appear in the lineup regularly. The wear-and-tear of center just does not seem like a good idea for Hamilton, however, and the club appears to agree. While being a centerfielder would mean more value and prestige, and would work out perfectly for the Rangers, getting his bat in to as many games as possible is the most important thing, and that means keeping him out of a position that demands a lot on the body. Of course, that also means Hamilton could sustain the same level of production from last season by staying healthy, even with a decline in his hitting rates.
Most of all, however, there is simple fact of the matter that reproducing 2010 is unlikely for Hamilton. The biggest reason is just because seasons like that are not regular, a player putting up multiple seasons that valuable is uncommon, and stringing them back to back is unlikely. Using Wins Above Replacement from FanGraphs as a rough example of the point, there have been just 32 seasons over the last five years of seven wins or more. Only seven players over that time managed to top the threshold twice, with only Albert Pujols being able to do it consistently over an extended period of time.
Reaching the level Hamilton did in 2010 is hard, and doing it twice is even harder. Failing to reproduce last season's success should not be seen as a disappointment or a failure. It should be seen as exactly what is likely to happen.
That is not to say the outlook on Hamilton '11 is meant to be doom and gloom. The very positive outlook on the Rangers you get here or from the leading projection systems does not hinge on another MVP-caliber year from Hamilton. Even regressing it down to account for his friendly ballpark and incredible BABIP, the analytics website StatCorner had his wOBA just a hair below a still-incredible .400. The ZiPS projection system expects a .306/.364/.533 slash line from Hamilton in 2011, with a wOBA coming out close to .390 (in just under 130 games).
Beyond projections, Hamilton showed signs you want to see from someone at the plate in 2010. His walk rate was not at a career high, and he swung at pitches out of the strike zone more often than ever, which by itself does not display an improvement in plate discipline. However, he made contact on those pitches outside of the strike zone nearly 5% more often than he did in 2009 (his previous high), with more than 2% fewer swinging strikes. Despite all those offerings, he managed to strike out less often than the average Major Leaguer, and managed plenty of force behind that contact with a 22% line drive rate that was near the top of baseball in 2010. He may not be the paragon of plate discipline, but if a hitter is able to make strong contact without whiffing, it makes sense for him to go ahead and expand his zone. His BB/K (0.45) rate was right there with MLB average, and a vast improvement (0.30) over his disappointing 2009 season.
Finally, and perhaps most encouragingly, there is the fact that none of his 2010 performance was anything that was ever seen as being outside of Hamilton's talent level. MVP-caliber upside was why the Rays made him the top pick in the draft, and was why the Reds, and then Rangers, took a chance on him even after years of time lost to extra curricular activities. When he is on, Hamilton is a rare and awe-inspiring baseball talent that seems like he can do anything he feels like on the field (like score from second base on an infield single, he actually did that). 2009 may have hurt expectations of him ever reaching that level, but no one doubted a season like 2010 was possible. 2010 was no over-performance, it was simply a superior talent finally reaching his potential (and perhaps not even fully realizing it). If anyone can do it again, it is Albert Pujols. If anyone else can do it again, it is Josh Hamilton.
In 2010, Josh Hamilton went from possible disappointment to becoming the new face of a franchise that can call it defending league champs for the first time. He is now a legend among a metroplex of fans, and living up to the standard set is going to be difficult. A step backwards should be expected, but not assumed. Most importantly, while a repeat of his MVP year would be nice, the Rangers do not necessarily need that, and if he manages it, things will probably be very good.