The first rule of April: It's too early to panic.
The second rule April: It's never too early to panic.
So the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim returned to the sun and the strip malls and the land where orange groves once filled the horizon for their home opener and by the top of the second inning were getting booed.
C.J. Wilson had thrown 43 pitches in the first inning while allowing three runs. The Angels then loaded the bases with no outs against Jarrod Parker but failed to score. When Coco Crisp slammed a home run in the second inning to make it 4-0, the boos came. They were mild, Southern California laid-back boos, but there they were. Considering the news earlier in the day that Jered Weaver will miss at least four weeks with a broken bone in his non-pitching elbow, it was understandable that Angels fans were starting to wonder if they were heading for a repeat of last year's disastrous 8-15 start after the team's 2-4 road trip to begin this season.
It ended up being a crazy game. The Angels got the leadoff man on in each of the first five innings but scored only two runs in the third -- an inning that could have been bigger in not for an Albert Pujols baserunning gaffe. With no outs, Yoenis Cespedes ran down Josh Hamilton's fly in deep left-center, but Pujols misread the play and had rounded second base; hobbled by plantar fasciitis, Pujols was doubled off first base.
The A's later attempted to give the game away when Chris Young dropped a fly ball and Jed Lowrie booted a grounder, helping the Angels take a 5-4 lead, but John Jaso hit a three-run homer pinch-hit homer off Kevin Jepsen in the seventh and Brandon Moss followed with a two-run shot as the A's won 9-5 for their sixth consecutive victory, dropping the Angels to 2-5.
But the major takeaway from this game has to be Hamilton: What's going on with the Angels' $125 million free-agent signing? The Rangers intentionally walked Pujols three times Saturday to get to Hamilton. Perhaps Texas manager Ron Washington was having flashbacks to the 2011 World Series, or maybe the Rangers were playing mind games, or maybe Washington really believes in the intentional walk, or maybe they just thought Hamilton was an easier out.
Guys making $25 million aren't supposed to be easy outs, but right now Josh Hamilton is a pretty easy out. (Caveat to analysis below: It's just seven games; if this happened in the middle of June we wouldn't necessarily even notice.)
Entering Tuesday's game, here were three facts about Hamilton:
1. He had the fourth-highest percentage of swings on pitches outside the strike zone, at 48 percent (behind Alexei Ramirez, Pablo Sandoval and Alfonso Soriano). Nothing new there: Hamilton had the highest such percentage last season of any qualified hitter.
2. His contact percentage when he did swing was tied for 11th-worst. Hard to make contact when you're swinging at pitches out of the strike zone. Again, nothing new here: He was the worst in this category among regulars in 2012.
3. He was tied for 26th in percentage of pitches seen within the strike zone (41.7 percent). That will probably change. Last year, Hamilton saw the fewest percentage of pitches in the strike zone, at 34 percent.
Now, he managed to hit 43 home runs last year anyway, certainly a testament to his talent. But we also know he tailed off in the second half -- .259 with 16 home runs in 69 games after hitting .308 with 27 home runs in 77 games in the first half -- as pitchers realized they didn't have to feed him as many strikes.
On Tuesday, here were Hamilton's five plate appearances:
First inning -- Struck out on three Parker changeups with the bases loaded.
Third inning -- Batting with two on, Hamilton did take two balls in the dirt to work the count full against Parker before lining a 93-mph fastball to deep left-center that Cespedes hauled in.
Fourth inning -- Batting again with the bases loaded, this time against Chris Resop, Hamilton got the count full but tapped weakly back to Resop, who got the force at home. Resop threw seven pitches -- five changeups, a curve and one fastball.
Sixth inning -- Against lefty Jerry Blevins with runners at the corners, he lofted an 0-2 slider to center for a sac fly. All three pitches from Blevins were sliders; the first two were fouled off.
Eighth inning -- Facing lefty Sean Doolittle, fouled off five fastballs before finally grounding out to first on a 2-2 curve.
There were some positive signs on the day: After striking out 10 times in his first 29 plate appearances entering the game, Hamilton whiffed just once. He fouled off pitches. But you can see the game plan. Other than against Doolittle, the A's fed him a steady diet of off-speed stuff, hoping to use Hamilton's aggressive approach against him. That's what pitchers did last year and what most teams will do moving forward, at least until Hamilton shows he won't stop swinging at those pitches when they're out of the strike zone. It's only a week, but I don't see any signs yet that Hamilton is any different than the hitter we saw the second half last year.
Now, he can still be a good hitter. Can he be a great hitter? I don't think so. Hamilton just gets himself out too often.
Look, it's too early to panic about Hamilton's production. But it's not too early to wonder what the long-term ramifications about his approach will mean.