Dozens of fans stood in line outside a downtown Disney restaurant in December, waiting to get a glimpse of newly signed slugger Josh Hamilton, and maybe even get an autograph from the 2010 MVP. Sitting next to his wife, Katie, and their four young daughters, Hamilton donned the red Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim jersey and faced a crowd of reporters.
“I’m so excited to hear an organization say we’re happy we got you, no matter what the risk is,” said Hamilton. The comment was a thinly veiled jab at his former team, the Texas Rangers, who shied away from re-signing the outfielder. Instead, the Angels offered Hamilton a five-year, $125 million deal—the second highest annual average salary in baseball.
Now, as Hamilton’s first full season with the Angels comes to an end, the Rangers’ reluctance to offer a mega-contract appears wise. Hamilton is batting just .236 and is on pace for a career low in home runs for a full season. It’s been a miserable year for the player who after years of battling addictions to drugs and alcohol, found his way out thanks to his faith in Christ. (See “Second chance,” March 17, 2007, and “Dramatic swings,” July 30, 2011.)
Angels coaches and scouts around the league have watched hours of video, trying to decipher how one of baseball’s most feared sluggers became the Angels’ disappointing $125 million man. Hamilton’s fly balls don’t travel as far as they did last year, and his patience at the plate has never been a strength—he’s swung at 439 pitches out of the strike zone this season.
And of course, there’s the Juice Lady diet. The popular theory regarding Hamilton’s decline centers on a gluten-free diet, consisting mostly of fruit and vegetables juices, that helped Hamilton lose 30 pounds during the offseason. Perhaps Hamilton lost the body mass that allowed him to muscle the ball over ballpark walls.
Or maybe the problem is simply Los Angeles. The 32-year-old enjoyed support in Texas from teammates who kept him away from temptation—when the Rangers won the 2010 ALCS, the team celebrated with ginger ale instead of champagne—to a manager, Ron Washington, who spent hours talking over issues with Hamilton.
Regardless of the reason for his decline this season, Hamilton has joined a long list of players who have failed to live up to their mega-contracts and lofty expectations–this year the names of first basemen alone include Albert Pujols, Ryan Howard, and Mark Teixeira, all whom have been injured at various times. But not all mega-deals have proven a disaster for their teams—at least not yet. Joey Votto (10 years, $225 million) has performed very well for the Cincinnati Reds; Joe Mauer (8 years, $184 million) is the heart of the Minnesota Twins; and the Detroit Tigers’ Miguel Cabrera (8 years, $152 million) has been the best hitter on the planet for the last two years.
The wide range of success and failure by players signed to mega-deals illustrates just how difficult it is to predict the future in sports. Teams that have made serious mistakes may now be less willing to spend hundreds of millions on one player, no matter his talent level. If small changes—like a fruit juice diet—can make such an enormous impact on a player’s performance, why should a team gamble its future on $125 million-plus contracts?
The National Football League agreed to a $765 million settlement with 4,500 former players who say the league concealed research showing the effects of head injuries. In what some called a victory for the NFL, the league will pay no more than $5 million to players who have been diagnosed with a cognitive illness (Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, etc.) and no more than $4 million to families of players who committed suicide. The settlement also includes funding for medical exams and concussion-related research.