Any player/Any era: Josh Hamilton

What he did: Lots of fans may know the story of Josh Hamilton, the 1999 No. 1 overall draft pick who spent many years out of baseball battling drug addiction before getting clean, returning to the game, and emerging as a legitimate Triple Crown threat for the Texas Rangers. What may get forgotten, amidst Hamilton’s .353 batting average, 23 home runs and 70 RBI, as of this writing, is that in high school, he was also an ace pitcher.

Era he might have thrived in: Suppose Hamilton came of age in a different era. In the early days of baseball, players who could both pitch and hit were often used on the mound first. This changed somewhere around the time the Boston Red Sox discovered that even though Babe Ruth pitched excellently, he was more valuable playing in the field everyday. I can only imagine the heights Hamilton may have reached if he, too, was a Deadball Era pitcher.

Why: Perhaps no other ballplayer in history had a better all-around high school season than what Hamilton accomplished his senior year. Besides being at a .556 batting average with 11 home runs, 34 RBI and just four strikeouts in 63 at-bats, Hamilton was sporting a 7-1 record as a pitcher and had struck out 83 batters in 47 innings when Sports Illustrated featured him in its May 17, 1999 issue.

At the time, Hamilton was a month away from being the first pick in the draft by the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, who passed on taking highly-touted second pick Josh Beckett (not to mention Albert Pujols, who went in the 13th round that year.) Hamilton’s coach told Sports Illustrated, “Can you imagine someone so good at so much that he could be a lefthander throwing 96 miles per hour—and not be wanted as a pitcher?”

It used to be if a player came up with pitching ability, he did that first. Stan Musial began as a minor league pitcher. So did Tris Speaker, who went 2-7 in the Texas League in 1906 and Ted Williams, signed as a pitcher-outfielder to the old San Diego Padres of the Pacific Coast League. Interestingly, Hamilton never pitched in the minors, and though Williams and Speaker each made a relief appearance in the majors (Speaker in 1914, Williams in 1940), Hamilton has yet to do so, not even in a blowout.

A generation before Musial and Williams, more players started out as major league hurlers before converting to position players. Besides Ruth, Rube Bressler and Smoky Joe Wood were also bright, young Deadball Era hurlers. Each blew out his arm and wound up as a light-hitting outfielder. I included Wood and Bressler in a post I wrote in May, The 10 best pitchers turned position players in baseball.

Curious about why more players pitched before becoming hitters in the early days, I emailed John Thorn, a prolific baseball writer and an expert on the game before the modern era. Thorn replied to me:

Look to Little League today, where the best player typically is the pitcher … who also bats cleanup. When the average level of playing skill was lower, as it surely was in the earliest days of the game, pitchers might be expected to be solid batters as well. Look at John Wad, Hoss Radbourn, Guy Hecker, Bob Caruthers … I could go on. Ruth’s transition was the ultimate one, of course, but it came at the tail end of a long established trend. Fewer pitchers made the conversion after Ruth than before, and with less success.

In terms of career trajectory, I most liken Hamilton to Lefty O’Doul as each man took long sabbaticals after early struggles. O’Doul struggled as a relief pitcher for parts of four seasons before leaving the majors in 1923 at 26, going to the PCL, and learning to hit. He returned to the majors in 1928, nearly batted .400 the following year and retired with a .349 batting average, fourth-best all-time.

I’m guessing Hamilton would have fared better than O’Doul, Bressler or Wood as a pitcher and that he had the raw talent to win 20 games in the Deadball Era. While I doubt Hamilton would have surpassed Ruth, who has a 2.28 career ERA, I suspect he may have amassed sufficient pitching numbers for the Hall of Fame. In fact, he might have had a better shot at Cooperstown than he has now. Like O’Doul, I think Hamilton’s career is going to be too short for Hall of Fame standards.

Any player/Any era is a Thursday feature here that looks at how a player might have fared in an era besides his own.

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