What he did:
Every so often, baseball gets a great hitter who debuts late. The 1920s had Lefty O'Doul failing as a pitcher with the Yankees, reinventing himself in the Pacific Coast League as a batter, and hitting .398 with the Phillies in 1929. Josh Hamilton might be O'Doul's modern equivalent, following his selection as the first pick in 1999 draft with a descent into drug addiction. It took him until 2007 at 26 to reach the majors, and it will be interesting to see if, as it's been with O'Doul, the lost seasons keep Hamilton from the Hall of Fame. This begs the question: What might Hamilton have done with those seasons?
Era he might have thrived in:
A fellow baseball blogger, Bradley Ankrom of Baseball Prospectus tweeted something interesting a few days ago. Using the age 21 to 25 totals for players who had comparable stats to Hamilton between 26 and 30, Bradley (@BradleyAnkrom) came up with projected splits for Hamilton for 2002 to 2006. I took a look and have some stats of my own, which I'll offer momentarily. While I doubt Hamilton would have been the second coming of Mickey Mantle had he debuted in 2002 with his draft team, Tampa Bay, he might have a better shot at Cooperstown.
I went off Bradley's idea, albeit with a few of my own wrinkles to adjust for different offensive conditions and ballpark effects that Hamilton's statistical doppelgangers may have encountered. First, I looked at players who had close to a 135 OPS+ for their age 26 to 30 seasons, as Hamilton did. Then, I looked among this group for players who debuted at 21 and found Jim Rice, Darryl Strawberry, Kent Hrbek, and Scott Rolen. Here's where this gets fun and, perhaps, a little unorthodox.
With the help of the Baseball-Reference.com stat converter, I ran numbers for Rice, Strawberry, Hrbek, and Rolen playing their age 21 to 25 seasons at Tropicana Field from 2002-2006, and I averaged their totals. I then multiplied the averages by .8974, the number of plate appearances the sometimes-brittle Hamilton had between ages 26 and 30 relative to them. When all was said and done, I got the following totals for Hamilton with Tampa Bay from 2002 to 2006:
(For those interested, here are the slash lines Bradley offered for Hamilton: 2002: 284/344/478, 2003: 281/345/483, 2004: 304/374/526, 2005: 294/365/507, 2006: 307/377/536. Bradley looked for players who were similar to Hamilton between ages 26 and 30, batting at least .300, with an OBP of .350, .530 slugging percentage, and 2500 plate appearances in this time. He then averaged those players' age 21 to 25 seasons.)
Baseball statistical alchemy aside, this exercise requires a few assumptions. It requires belief, first of all, that Hamilton could have found a way to play 2002 to 2006. I don't know if he was in any condition to compete those years, but if a few things had gone differently for him, he may have been. Isn't that how life goes so often? For purposes of this scenario, I have Hamilton not getting injured early in his minor league career, not finding himself hanging around tattoo parlors, not dabbling in powder and, eventually, rock cocaine. I figure he might realistically be drinking in this scenario, no great thing for anyone with budding alcoholic tendencies, but a slower means of destruction minus hard drugs. Mantle stayed functional through his twenties in this way, as did many other greats.
Life has a way of working itself out. Hamilton has righted course and, at the moment, is leading the American League in all three Triple Crown categories, even hitting four homers earlier this week. The Tampa organization that had to rid itself of Hamilton after his early disaster has become a contender, while Hamilton's Texas Rangers have done likewise. Provided he stays sober and healthy over the next eight or ten years, Hamilton may have a chance at the Hall of Fame. Still, who knows what might have been.
Any player/Any era is a Thursday feature (generally) here that looks at how a player might have done in an era besides his own.
Others in this series: Al Kaline, Al Rosen, Al Simmons, Albert Pujols, Artie Wilson, Babe Ruth, Bad News Rockies, Barry Bonds, Billy Beane, Billy Martin, Bob Caruthers, Bob Feller, Bob Watson, Bobby Veach, Carl Mays, Cesar Cedeno, Charles Victory Faust, Chris von der Ahe, Denny McLain, Dom DiMaggio, Don Drysdale, Doug Glanville,Ed Walsh, Eddie Lopat, Elmer Flick, Eric Davis, Frank Howard, Fritz Maisel, Gary Carter, Gavvy Cravath, Gene Tenace, George W. Bush (as commissioner), George Case, George Weiss, Harmon Killebrew, Harry Walker, Home Run Baker, Honus Wagner, Hugh Casey, Ichiro Suzuki, Jack Clark, Jack Morris, Jackie Robinson, Jim Abbott, Jimmy Wynn, Joe DiMaggio, Joe Posnanski, Johnny Antonelli, Johnny Frederick, Josh Gibson, Josh Hamilton, Ken Griffey Jr., Larry Walker, Lefty Grove, Lefty O’Doul, Major League (1989 film),Mark Fidrych, Matt Nokes, Matty Alou, Michael Jordan, Monte Irvin, Nate Colbert, Ollie Carnegie, Paul Derringer, Pedro Guerrero, Pedro Martinez, Pee Wee Reese, Pete Rose, Prince Fielder, Ralph Kiner, Rick Ankiel, Rickey Henderson, Roberto Clemente, Rogers Hornsby, Sam Crawford, Sam Thompson, Sandy Koufax, Satchel Paige, Shoeless Joe Jackson, Spud Chandler, Stan Musial, Ted Williams, The Meusel Brothers, Tony Phillips, Ty Cobb, Vada Pinson, Wally Bunker, Wes Ferrell, Will Clark, Willie Mays