By one admittedly imperfect measure, Josh Hamilton is the most popular player in baseball history.
Hamilton got a record 11 million votes in All-Star balloting last year. No one has attracted so many votes — not Ken Griffey Jr., not Albert Pujols, not Ichiro Suzuki. From coast to coast, the fans wanted to see Hamilton.
This year, they don't. The All-Star game will go on without him.
"I never want to go unless I deserve to go," he said. "Obviously, this year, as far as the numbers go, I don't deserve to go.
"I'll take that time and reboot and re-energize and spend time with the family, and just forget about baseball for three or four days."
The Angels desperately need a reboot on their $125-million investment. No player in baseball history has fallen so hard, so fast, for no readily apparent reason.
Hamilton hit .285 for the Texas Rangers last season, with 43 home runs and 128 runs batted in. When the Angels hit the halfway point this season, Hamilton was on pace to bat .221, with 20 home runs and 56 RBIs.
No player has put up numbers so high one season and so low the next, according to STATS, with a minimum of 500 at-bats each year so as to eliminate players limited because of injury.
For every good day, Hamilton has had two bad days, or three, or so it seems. The last few days mostly have been good ones, but Hamilton is too smart to say he has climbed out of the valley.
"I don't want to say that," he said. "Give me a month."
Hamilton says he is not injured, aside from wrist inflammation that kept him out for a weekend. Angels Manager Mike Scioscia has just about emptied his bag of tricks — days off for extra work with coaches, days off to get away from the work and clear the mind, up and down in the lineup. Hamilton never batted anywhere besides third and fifth last year; Scioscia has tried him second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh.
In his five years with the Rangers, all of them All-Star years, the left-handed Hamilton hit .315 with 83 home runs at home, .294 with 59 home runs on the road. In the Rangers' ballpark, right field means a kindly jet stream, and the ball goes out. In Anaheim, right field means a tall wall, and the ball stays in, and frustration sets in.
That explains a little, but not a lot, according to a talent evaluator who watches Hamilton regularly.
"It's not bat speed," the evaluator said. "It's not the ability to run. It's not the physical tools.
"The talent is still there. When he runs into one, he hits it 500 feet. His pitch selection has been brutal. It's more about his approach, or lack of one."
Hamilton acknowledges as much, and in fact his pitch selection has improved markedly in recent days. He has swung at 40.4% of pitches outside the strike zone this season, down from 45.4% last season, according to Fangraphs data through Friday's games. Howie Kendrick swings at more pitches outside the strike zone.
But, as Yasiel Puig proves daily, swinging at a bad pitch is not so bad if you can hit it, preferably hard. Hamilton is the only player this season to swing at more than 40% of pitches out of the strike zone and fail to make contact with at least 44% of them, according to Fangraphs.
Jerry Dipoto, the Angels' general manager, says Hamilton has put in the time to see what has gone wrong, and to try to fix it. Does Dipoto believe Hamilton remains capable of putting up numbers similar to the ones he put up in Texas?
"I can't think of a reason why I would say no," Dipoto said. "There's no doubt he has the ability. We see small spurts. We see the physical ability. Now we need to see him put it together day in and day out."
The Angels understood that a five-year contract that took Hamilton to age 36 might turn sour at some point, but not so soon. For now, they still believe.
"Five years from now, we can sit down, and then ask me about the investment in the man," owner Arte Moreno told USA Today recently. (Moreno has declined interview requests from The Times and other local media outlets all year.)
Hamillton is rare among major league players, and not just for his extraordinary skills. He is not afraid to discuss his fears and his failures.
The first month in Anaheim went bad, and then the second, and Hamilton assured everyone he had endured bad streaks and always had emerged from them. By June, he said, he had lost his confidence, at least for a couple weeks.
"There are times when you feel frustrated, the confidence is down, you beat your head in trying to work harder, and you do everything you can to have results," he said. "Sometimes, they're just not there.
"But for the guys that came after you and signed you to still have confidence in you and understand the work you're doing, that is refreshing."
In those low moments, did he consider that this might not be a slump, that this might be who he is for these five years?
"No," he said. "Not that bad. I'm only human. When things aren't going well, it's either throw a pity party for yourself or keep fighting."
By not building the kind of impenetrable fort around him that so many star players do, Hamilton reveals himself to be a real person, flaws and all. To his critics, many of them with Texas license plates, this makes Hamilton a bit of a drama queen. He could just keep quiet.
But struggles with sinuses, allergies, tobacco, caffeine and work are parts of everyday life for many Americans, not just the few with the talent to hit a curveball. Hamilton talks openly about his battles with drug and alcohol abuse, and the salvation he has found in Christianity.
In comparison, three months of bad baseball is nothing.
"Yeah," he said, "that is definitely right. But, at the same time, you've got a lot of people you want to do well for. Obviously, first of all, the person that gave you the talent.
"But I don't want to be a butt in here. There is only so much cheering and encouraging you can do. You have to go out there and get results."
It would hardly be possible to get better results than Miguel Cabrera or Chris Davis, and yet each got 3 million fewer All-Star votes this year than Hamilton did last year. You can argue that widespread Internet balloting made it possible for Hamilton to get more votes than Griffey, Pujols or Suzuki, but the technological advances –- and a triple crown last year, and the possibility of another this year — still left Cabrera well shy of Hamilton in baseball's annual popularity contest.
The player closest to falling as far as Hamilton might from one year to the next, according to STATS: Dodgers Hall of Fame member Roy Campanella, who hit .312 with 41 home runs and 142 RBIs in 1953, then .207 with 19 home runs and 51 RBIs in 1954. Campanella was limited to 446 at-bats in 1954; he sat out a month after surgery to his left hand and wrist.
In 1955, at 33, Campanella was selected most valuable player. There is hope in that, for one of baseball's most popular players and his anxious new employers. Hope, and faith.
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