For many, the idea that our lives are nothing more than a series of random events occurring outside the control of ourselves or some celestial being is either far too much or not nearly enough to consider. It’s a frightening thing to go against what one is naturally inclined to do. After all, we’ve evolved into beings with brains that fabricate significance, and we instinctively attach this quality to different experiences as a method of producing meaning without much regard for accuracy.
In baseball, this practice is undertaken so frequently that fans of the sport have developed a counter argument against misplaced significance consisting of only three words: “Small sample size.” The term conveys that an opinion about a baseball player’s ability is giving too much credence to what could be the randomization found in a small amount of occurrences. For example, if a batter faces a pitcher four times and gets four hits, it doesn’t mean that he’s great against that particular pitcher. There were only four instances from which to draw a conclusion, and several other random factors could account for success or failure.
Randomization is an important concept in baseball, not just because of the camouflage it presents to analytics and evaluation, but also because it’s played such an enormous role in one of the sport’s most fascinating figures: Josh Hamilton.
The outfielder’s biography is like something from a Paul Auster novel. Random events occurring far outside the scope of the outfielder’s control have conspired to influence his life to such an acute degree that if his family wasn’t involved in a traffic collision ahead of his third full season as a professional baseball player, we’d likely be talking about Hamilton being in the eighth year of his twelve-season contract with three-time World Series Champion Tampa Bay Devil Rays.
Hamilton’s path – from sheltered son to substance abuser, from flamed out prospect to baseball superstar – has been well documented. The most recent chapter in the ongoing saga ended yesterday when the All-Star outfielder signed a free agent contract with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim that will pay him $125 million over the next five seasons. It’s not unfair to think of that sum as a lot of money to entrust to someone recovering from drug and alcohol addiction, whose struggles have resulted in several backslides and led many to presume a ravaged mind and body. However, the amount and relatively short terms of the deal don’t represent an overpay in Major League Baseball’s new world order of regional television networks and financial success.
Of more concern than the influence of the past on Hamilton is the change of venue for his batting skills. Instead of playing half of his games at the offense friendly confines of Rangers Ballpark In Arlington, he’ll be swinging away for as many as 81 games in the pitcher-friendly boundaries of Angel Stadium of Anaheim. The two fields are as different as their names are common. So, we’ll expect a decrease in production from Hamilton, not from the decay of abuse-weary bones, but rather because of a simple change of scenery.
Over the last two seasons, Hamilton has been worth between eight and eight-and-a-half wins above replacement. This deal pays him more in line with this production rather than his outstanding 2010 American League MVP season, and that seems to be a fair amount given his injury history (influenced by his past or not), his exposed lack of plate discipline and defensive lapses last season.
If we assume a $5.25 million cost for a win above replacement on the free agent market, and an inflation rate between 5% (standard) and 7.5% (increased due to new CBA and increased revenue from television contracts), we see something like this range.
2013 – $25 million salary – $5.25 $/WAR – Paying for 4.8 WAR
2014 – $25 million salary – $5.51 – $5.64 $/WAR – Paying for 4.5 – 4.4 WAR
2015 – $25 million salary – $5.79 – $6.06 $/WAR – Paying for 4.3 – 4.1 WAR
2016 – $25 million salary – $6.08 – $6.52 $/WAR – Paying for 4.1 – 3.8 WAR
2017 – $25 million salary – $6.31 – $7.01 $/WAR – Paying for 4.0 – 3.6 WAR
What we’re looking at is the Angels anticipating something between 20 and 22 wins above replacement from Hamilton over the course of his contract. Toss in a presumption that the high average annual value is partly in lieu of a longer-term deal, and it’s an understandable agreement.
There is some questioning however as to whether or not Hamilton’s inclusion on the roster makes Los Angeles a better team, given Torii Hunter’s contributions from a season ago and his departure to the Detroit Tigers this off-season. The contract alone likely doesn’t improve the 2013 Angels over their 2012 incarnation, but the signing has further implications beyond merely adding one of the league’s best sluggers.
It allows the team to move Mark Trumbo, Peter Bourjos or even Kendry Morales as part of a package for a starting pitcher, something that wouldn’t be surprising to see in the days ahead. The signing also represents the pilfering of talent from a division rival; theoretically decreasing the value that Hamilton would’ve provided their AL West counterparts in Texas.
It seems pedantic to suggest that this is an interesting move for both the team and the player. After all, what nine-figure free agent contract is going to be uninteresting? There’s so much narrative attached to Josh Hamilton, as both a person and an athlete; that anything he does is likely to garner attention, and this is no exception.
However, unlike the rest of the winds that have blown his career’s sails through a Rule Five draft and a player trade, this is him steering the ship. Hamilton has decided to play in Los Angeles. He has committed to this team for a lucrative figure. Just as it is in determining the value of a baseball player, eventually the randomization evens out, and the true talent emerges. Hamilton has made this decision, and with it comes the expectation that he emerge as a true person, something beyond what circumstance has shaped and formed.
Given that history and the measures outside of his control that he’s had to overcome, his persona is something like a batter with an unlucky BABIP. That he hasn’t given in to this, and continues to fight against it with his talent is why we root for him a little bit harder than the average baseball player. And it’s why we’ll be hoping and perhaps praying for him during his next five years as an Angel.