Hamilton at center of Angels' first-month woes

Slugger confident he'll bust slump, but club's struggles go beyond him

Hamilton at center of Angels' first-month woes

HOUSTON -- Josh Hamilton has little to cling to these days, cloaked in a .208/.255/.296 slash line through the first five weeks of a five-year, $125 million contract.

All the Angels' right fielder really has is his memory, which is littered with examples of similar slumps -- just before he finds it again and reminds us of how special his swing can be.

"It'll come," Hamilton said when asked why it hasn't. "And when it comes, everybody's going to be like, 'Oh, oh, OK.'"

So far, though, the oohs and aahs are mostly expressions of bemusement, as observers everywhere shake their head at a gifted slugger who chases so many pitches and gives away so many at-bats.

Hamilton has already struck out 38 times, tied for seventh in the Majors and on pace for a career-high 199 (his current high is 162, set last year). His double on Sunday, in the ninth inning of a game the Halos were trailing by four runs, was his first extra-base hit in three weeks. And Hamilton's two home runs is the fewest he's had in any 31-game stretch since 2009.

"It's been a rough month for him, it's been a rough month for us as a team," general manager Jerry Dipoto said. "I know it's what all the talking heads want to talk about, but he's just one guy trying to help with a team that's struggling. Sometimes, when you've accomplished the kind of things he's accomplished, it puts the microscope a little closer to you. But we have a myriad of issues that extend far beyond Josh's struggles."

That's painfully true. The Angels, simply put, aren't doing anything right.

They certainly aren't pitching. A rotation that has been without ace Jered Weaver since April 7 sports the fourth-highest ERA in the Majors, while a bullpen without four crucial members ranks 23rd in WHIP.

The Halos aren't playing much defense, sporting a fielding percentage that's tied for the fifth lowest in baseball and allowing the second-highest stolen-base success rate.

Offensively, they aren't doing much of anything. They've stolen more bases than only three other teams, while Albert Pujols and his plantar fasciitis -- owed another $114 million over four years after Hamilton's contract expires -- are batting .153 since April 21.

And the Angels' injury list is haunting, with 19 pitchers used since Opening Day and 12 of the players on their 40-man roster spending time on the disabled list.

It's numbers like those that make you wonder how they're even 11-20, which is tied with 1990 for the worst start in franchise history and is better than only two American League teams -- the Astros, who the Angels start a three-game road series against on Tuesday, and a Blue Jays team of similar expectations.

At the center, though, is Hamilton, whose early struggles seem like an extension of last year's second half -- he's batting .242/.302/.442 in 100 games since that point -- and feel eerily familiar to the ones Pujols went through in 2012.

"He's just not where he needs to be in the batter's box," manager Mike Scioscia said. "That's the bottom line."

Scioscia has tried almost everything to get Hamilton going, while at the same time trying to compensate for his lack of production. On April 22, Scioscia announced Hamilton would only bat cleanup against right-handers. Eight days later, he put Hamilton in the No. 5 spot against everybody. And on Saturday, Scioscia gave him his first day off to "clear some cobwebs out."

Hamilton, who can be about as brutally honest as they come, has vowed all year that he feels just fine at the plate. There have been times that he's felt completely lost with a bat in his hands.

"And this is not even close to being one of them," he said.

But the numbers don't support how Hamilton allegedly feels.

While seeing the second-lowest percentage of fastballs in the Majors, Hamilton has swung at 44.2 percent of pitches outside of the strike zone, which is tied for third in the Majors and high even by his overly aggressive standards.

"It's weird," Hamilton said, shaking his head when told he's expanding his zone. "How come I don't feel that way? Usually, when I do feel that way, I really am lost lost, and I feel like I have no clue what's going on."

At one point in Oakland, nine of the 10 pitches Hamilton saw from Jarrod Parker were changeups. So prior to Friday's game, he talked about seeing more offspeed pitches, which has caused him to be surprised in the rare instances when the fastballs come.

A few hours later, Orioles starter Miguel Gonzalez threw Hamilton seven consecutive low-90s fastballs. The result: Five whiffs, one foul popout and one caught-looking strikeout.

"I just know there's a lot more in him," hitting coach Jim Eppard said. "At any time, he can get hot and be the guy that we're looking for. He's just not there yet."

Hamilton is not there yet the way Pujols wasn't there through his first 35 games of last year, batting .197 with one home run just before getting hot and finishing with impressive numbers -- .285 batting average, 30 homers, 105 RBIs.

Many times throughout his career, Hamilton has gone through stretches like these, and then the light switch suddenly goes off. The rough patches have just never been this pronounced, this prolonged.

So the easy place to go is that Hamilton is putting too much pressure on himself. The burden of a big contract, coupled by the collective slow start of the team around him, has made Hamilton press at the plate, in much of the same ways the Angels' $240 million first baseman did in his first month.

Hamilton disputes that.

"I was telling my wife about that the other night," he said. "I said, 'That's the furthest thing from the truth.' And that's a little frustrating, because that has absolutely nothing to do with it. It's just weird, man. I'm definitely not putting any pressure on myself at all."

Alden Gonzalez is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Gonzo and "The Show", and follow him on Twitter @Alden_Gonzalez. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.