Josh Hamilton hit .467 with nine home runs and 18 runs batted in during a single… (Bruce Kluckhohn / Getty…)
ARLINGTON, Texas — Josh Hamilton squeezed a solid month of production into one week last May, hitting .467 with nine homers, 18 runs batted in and 43 total bases in seven games for the Texas Rangers, including an epic four-homer night at Baltimore's Camden Yards on May 8.
"When he gets on a tear like that, he's superhuman; it's ridiculous," Rangers General Manager Jon Daniels said. "You see guys get hot, but Josh takes it to another level, to where every time he's up, you think he's going to do something special."
That game-changing ability motivated the Angels in December to commit $125 million over five years to Hamilton, who hit .368 with 21 homers and 57 RBIs the first two months of last season.
But there is a flip side to Hamilton as a hitter that gives reason for pause. That torrid two-month stretch was followed by averages of .223 in June, .177 in July and a sluggish second half in which Hamilton says he battled withdrawal symptoms after he quit chewing tobacco and subsequent vision problems caused by excessive caffeine consumption.
"As magical as April and May were, June and July were equally tough to watch," Daniels said.
Hamilton, 31, a five-time All-Star, is confident the tobacco and caffeine issues are behind him. "When I stopped dipping, I didn't realize I was drinking more coffee," he said during a recent interview near his home. "I'd have an energy drink before a game and a Mountain Dew after it. My caffeine intake went way up. I was overstimulated. My eyes were good, but I was just so wired I couldn't focus."
Hamilton's final 2012 numbers — a .285 average, 43 homers, 128 RBIs — suggest the left-handed-hitting outfielder is still a premier player, and he has clearly retained many of the tools that made him the first pick of the 1999 draft.
"With all due respect to the game, there can't be 10 players in the history of baseball who have been blessed with the skill set Josh has," Rangers outfielder David Murphy said.
Hamilton is three years removed from his 2010 American League most-valuable-player season, when he hit .359 with 32 homers and 100 RBIs. The Angels expect him to team with 21-year-old phenom Mike Trout and slugger Albert Pujols to give them one of baseball's most prolific lineups.
"They have arguably two of the most talented players in the game in Josh and Trout and one of the best hitters to play the game in Albert," said Michael Young, the former Rangers infielder who signed with Philadelphia this winter. "That's a special offensive group."
Provided, that is, that these red flags from Hamilton's 2012 don't rise again: He hit .259 with 16 homers and 53 RBIs in the second half and had a career-high 162 strikeouts in the season. He was overmatched at times by left-handers with good breaking balls.
According to Fangraphs, Hamilton had a major league-high 36% miss rate on all swings, and 45% of the pitches he swung at were out of the strike zone.
Hamilton also dropped a fly ball for a key two-run error that helped Oakland win the AL West on the final day of the regular season, and he was booed by his home crowd after going 0 for 4 with two strikeouts and a double-play grounder in a span of eight pitches during a wild-card loss to Baltimore.
All of which raises a troubling question for the Angels: Has Hamilton, who abused his body during a brutal four-year addiction to alcohol and cocaine from 2001 to 2005, begun to decline?
"I don't know, I don't think so," Daniels said. "He's 31, going on 32. I don't know if he'll be this caliber of player for five years, but it wouldn't surprise me if he is. Unique guys with special talents do special things."
Hamilton has always been streaky, with many hot spells followed by prolonged cold ones. Injuries, often the result of violent collisions with outfield walls or head-first slides into bases, have limited him to an average of 123 games a year.
"I feel like I'm a reaction player, just get after it," Hamilton said. "If I start thinking about things, I look out of place, out of sorts."
Hamilton has a similar approach in the batter's box.
"The less thinking I do the better, but it's human nature to start thinking and overanalyzing things," Hamilton said. "I'm aggressive to begin with. When things are going good, no one says a thing. When I'm struggling, fouling off pitches or swinging out of the strike zone, it snowballs."
Daniels said Texas Manager Ron Washington tried everything to help Hamilton snap out of his funk last season, giving him extra days off, moving him from left field to center, motivating him with fiery speeches.
"It was baffling — nothing really worked," Daniels said. "Josh clearly had something else going on, and he feels pretty strongly that it was the tobacco withdrawal. For his sake, I hope so. Otherwise, it leads to a lot of questions."