It's always about health with Hamilton - NBC Sports

It's always about health with Hamilton
Rangers slugger potentially could win Triple Crown, but he's rarely played a full season
AP
The Texas Rangers' Josh Hamilton has hit everything thrown at him this season, NBCSports.com contributor Tony DeMarco writes.
May 16, 2012, 1:05 pm

Baseball Expert Tony DeMarco has been covering the big leagues since 1987, and been casting Hall of Fame ballots for the last 14 years. He answers questions weekly here:

Q: Josh Hamilton is leading the majors in all three Triple Crown categories. When was the last time a player did this in May? What is the record for fastest to get to 20 home runs by either games played or at-bats?
- John K. Wright, Plano, Texas

A: As premature as it is to make Triple Crown comparisons in May, we can only watch in amazement at Hamilton.

His recent week (May 7-13) is one of the top 10 in history: .467 batting average (14 for 30), nine homers and 18 RBI. Of course, it always helps when you hit four homers, drive in eight runs and amass 18 total bases in one game.

Hamilton has hit everything thrown at him. The HRs came on six different pitches: fastball, curveball, sinker, slider, changeup and cut fastball.

It's also hard to believe how much Hamilton is leading in each of the three AL Triple Crown categories.

Through Monday, Hamilton's .400 average led runner-up Derek Jeter's by 33 points, his 18 homers were six more than runner-up Curtis Granderson's 12 and and his 44 RBI were 15 more than runner-up Miguel Cabrera's 29.

Hamilton also is leading the league in total bases, slugging percentage and OPS, and reached 18 homers in only 31 games - fastest in history.

As for the fastest-to-20-homers list, it's topped by Luis Gonzalez (40 games in 2001), Mark McGwire (41 games in 1998) and Barry Bonds (42 games in 2001).

But what's a bit surprising is that of the three Triple Crown categories, Hamilton's weakest chance to win may just lie in home runs.

Hamilton already has won an RBI title - 130 in 2008. He also won a batting title with a .359 average in his MVP 2010 season, and is a .313 career hitter. But he's never hit more than 32 homers in a season (in both 2008 and 2010) - a number he'll have by the All-Star break at this pace.

And remember that last season, Hamilton hit only 25 homers in 121 games - and amazingly finished fifth on the Rangers in that category behind Ian Kinsler, Adrian Beltre, Mike Napoli and Nelson Cruz.

Of course, health always is the vital issue, as Hamilton's season games-played totals from 2007-2011 were 90, 156, 89, 133 and 121 - and he'll turn 31 next week. So let's just enjoy this for as long as it lasts - and hope Hamilton can stay healthy for as close to a full season as possible.

Q: Paul Konerko consistently has been one of the better first basemen in the American League for quite some time, and he's only getting better. If he reaches 500 home runs, does he have a legitimate chance to reach the Hall of Fame?
- Jim O'Connor, Chicago

A: Konerko has put together an excellent 16-year career in which he has topped the 400-homer, 2,000-hit and 1,200-RBI marks. He's made five All-Star teams, hit at least 40 homers twice, bat .300 or better in four seasons, put together six 100-RBI seasons, and finished in the top six in MVP voting twice. All that plus above-average defense at first base and a sterling reputation as a clubhouse leader.

Konerko is in that near-great category that will make him at best a borderline Hall of Fame candidate if he puts together at least three more very productive seasons, which certainly is possible.

And if you look at Baseball-Reference.com's list of hitters whose numbers most-closely resemble Konerko's, you'll find Tino Martinez, Gil Hodges, Derrick Lee, Jason Giambi, Lee May, Norm Cash, Carlos Lee, David Ortiz and Orlando Cepeda - only the latter of whom is a Hall of Famer at this point, or likely to be in the future.

Q: If the definition of the strike zone is from the letters to the bottom of the knee caps, why do you rarely see a strike called above the belt?
- Josh P, Asheville, N.C.

A: The latest official rule book definition of the strike zone (and it's changed over the years) reads as follows: "That area over home plate, the upper limit of which is a horizontal line at the midpoint between the top of the shoulders and the top of the uniform pants, and the lower level a line at the hollow beneath the knee cap."

As for how pitches actually are called, that's on the umpires. In the last half-dozen or so years - coinciding with the improved strike zone diagnostic equipment being employed by MLB - umpires are graded on their ball-strike calls, and things have changed somewhat.

For awhile there - say throughout the 1990s and early into the 2000s - nothing above the belt was called a strike. But from my observation, pitches just above the belt often are called strikes these days. But I'd say pitches at the letters still very rarely are called strikes.

As a general rule, pitchers want to keep the ball down in the strike zone, so that's the main reason why that upper limit of the zone isn't used often - and even less often called a strike. But you want to have the option to go up there with a fastball to get a swinging strike - a strategy many pitchers employ as a strikeout pitch.

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