Billy Hamilton, Who is Not a Caricature

A common question in our chats has asked how much longer the Reds can put up with Billy Hamilton and his lousy numbers out of the leadoff slot. Hamilton was known to be a question mark coming into the year, and he got off to a putrid beginning, and all the speed in the world can’t do you any good if you can never even get down to first. Some entertained the idea of Hamilton becoming a full-time pinch-runner, figuring that was the way for him to maximize value. The questions have been coming in less frequently lately. Hamilton, since April 15, has hit .340.

That isn’t intended as evidence that Billy Hamilton is a good hitter. Before he started hitting .340, Hamilton was hitting .140, and that data’s every bit as valid. What’s becoming more clear, though, is that Hamilton’s a real player, and not just an assortment of exaggerations. Before a player arrives in the majors, it’s tempting to view them as caricatures of their strengths and weaknesses. Then big-league performance pulls everything back closer to the ordinary. Billy Hamilton played a game Tuesday that said as much as words could: he’s probably not the worst hitter in baseball. And while he’s gifted on the bases, he’s far from un-throw-out-able.

That’s the caricature. That’s how people wanted to think of Billy Hamilton. For Hamilton, a single was as good as a double, and a double was about as good as a triple. The idea was that, for Hamilton, stealing bases was virtually automatic. The trouble was getting Hamilton on base, with his slender frame and feeble bat speed. You can look at it like this: Hamilton’s baserunning was thought to be +3 standard deviations. Hamilton’s hitting was thought to be -3 standard deviations. Extremes, combined into some compelling mystery.

Here’s how Hamilton began on Tuesday, against Jeff Samardzija:

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Hamilton walked on five pitches without taking a swing. While Hamilton’s bat can’t do the damage of, say, Giancarlo Stanton‘s, what Hamilton does have is some semblance of discipline. And he has an understanding of how it’s often better for him to take a pitch than to swing at it. On Monday’s podcast, Dave highlighted Hamilton as an example of a guy who’d be best off swinging hardly ever at all. Hamilton, more than anybody else, is aware of his own strengths, and non-strengths.

Immediately:

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Shortly following:

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Soon after that, Hamilton scored on a Brandon Phillips sac fly that nearly left the yard. Anybody could’ve scored on the sac fly, so that part had nothing to do with Hamilton’s speed, and the wild pitch, also, would’ve advanced most or all players. But Hamilton did kick things off with the steal, and it’s impossible to know what effect he might’ve had on Samardzija while he was around on the bases.

In the third inning, Hamilton batted again:

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I wouldn’t say Hamilton beat out a routine grounder. But he did beat out a grounder that wasn’t exceptionally tricky, and this is why people have been insisting that Hamilton just try to hit the top half of the baseball: if he puts the ball in play on the ground, he’ll always have a chance. And that sort of establishes a kind of floor for Hamilton’s performance, because no matter what, he’ll always have his infield singles. And while you might not realize this, Hamilton has an above-average contact rate. He isn’t bad at putting the bat on the baseball. And that’s going to lead to a lot of these hits.

Right after:

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Juan Centeno. Know why you know that name? He was the first big-league catcher to successfully throw out Billy Hamilton stealing. Such a feat was thought to be impossible. Now, this season, Hamilton is 10 out of 15. Granted, this was probably a hit-and-run. Joey Votto swung, and there’s also the matter of Hamilton taking a peek. Here’s Hamilton on his first steal attempt:

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Here he is on the second:

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Hit-and-runs lead to easier caught steals than straight steal attempts, so this wasn’t Hamilton at his best. But the point remains that Hamilton was thrown out, and he wasn’t thrown out for the first time. He can be caught, as much as it seems like that should never happen, and then when you look at his minor-league logs, you see the truth that’s so much more fun to deny. Hamilton was thrown out 24% of the time in Double-A. He was thrown out 17% of the time in Triple-A. He stands out because of both his speed and the volume of his attempts, but the downside of the volume is that people pretty much always know Hamilton’s going, and that lets them prepare in advance. Billy Hamilton can be gunned down by a major-league battery. The odds are always against it, but the odds are always against it with most runners.

Moving on to the fifth:

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It doesn’t look like a home-run swing. Billy Hamilton doesn’t have a home-run swing. But what he does have is a home run, off a good starting pitcher. He did this once to an inside fastball in spring training, and now he’s done it to an inside fastball in the season, and according to the ESPN Home Run Tracker, this ball had a standard distance of 401 feet, and it left the bat at more than 104 miles per hour. An average home run leaves the bat at just under 104 miles per hour. Hamilton demonstrated that he doesn’t just slap hit — he’s capable, from time to time, of giving a ball an actual ride. Of hitting a true big-boy dinger, which is something Ben Revere‘s still waiting to pull off.

To the sixth we go:

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That’s Hamilton on the other side of a hit-and-run. And just in case you missed it somehow:

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Hamilton singled to the third baseman. The third baseman was drawn in. The ball was hit right to him. Hamilton was safe anyway. One thing we can safely assume about Hamilton: he’ll make below-average quality of contact. Another thing we can safely assume about Hamilton: he’ll turn a greater rate of the weak balls in play into hits than the league average. By probably a lot. This was a swinging bunt, right to an infielder prepared for it, and it didn’t matter.

Finally, the bottom of the eighth:

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Hamilton didn’t do anything. He made an out. But he did hit a sharp grounder, in contrast to the two weaker earlier grounders. The idea is to demonstrate, again, Hamilton is capable of hitting the ball with some authority. And he’ll end up with plenty of hits on balls he hit with considerably less authority. Barry Zito has this swing where he’s just up there trying to put the ball in play. As a Giant he posted an above-average contact rate, but the actual swings yielded embarrassing quality of contact. Zito would basically just return the ball to one of the waiting infielders. Hamilton, sometimes, will feature that swing. But Hamilton, other times, will hit the baseball like a major-league baseball hitter.

Just a few weeks ago, Hamilton was a statistical disaster. Now we can say this: he has 120 big-league plate appearances, and an 86 wRC+. Between last year and this year, Jimmy Rollins has an 86 wRC+. Brandon Phillips and Jose Altuve are at 87. Elvis Andrus is at 77. We have a good sense that Hamilton is going to be below-average at the plate, but that’s okay, because of what else he can do. It looks less like he’s a catastrophe. The truth is that Hamilton’s probably in the top 5-10% of baserunners, and the bottom 10-20% of hitters. That makes him a gamble, and far from a sure thing for the Reds as an everyday player. But at the same time, Billy Hamilton isn’t your hyperbole. For all I know he’s just about Michael Bourn or Leonys Martin. Maybe that makes Hamilton a little less exciting, a little less exotic, but you can’t blame reality for sometimes falling short of what you made up.



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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.


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