One of the big conversations taking place in baseball right now concerns whether or not Billy Hamilton is going to hit enough to stick as an actual long-term regular. It’s a justifiable worry, because Hamilton didn’t exactly tear up the minors, and he hasn’t looked fantastic in his limited exposure to the majors. We won’t know for a while whether Hamilton can do enough at the plate, but it’s good to have the occasional reminder of why he’s being held to a lower baseline than others. Wednesday’s fifth inning of a game between the Reds and Cardinals provided such a reminder.
It wouldn’t be fair to say that Hamilton made a run happen entirely on his own. He required assistance from the pitcher, his teammates, and the rest of the opposition. But with no other player in baseball would a run have been scored, given the sequence you’re about to observe, in .gif form.
I almost wrote that, “innocently enough, Hamilton led off with a first-pitch single.” But as we have already come to know, there’s nothing innocent about a Billy Hamilton single with no one on base in front of him. Shelby Miller threw a fastball down the middle and Hamilton slapped it.
That’s the boring part. That’s the part Hamilton has to do in order to really get into his strength. Up next was Brandon Phillips, and the Cardinals opted for a pitch-out. Hamilton didn’t budge. The next pitch was a cutter, for a strike, and Hamilton budged.
Hamilton got an unbelievable jump, and I timed him at about 3.1 seconds. It’s important to note that the Cardinals’ catcher was Yadier Molina. It’s important to note that Molina didn’t even fake an attempt of a throw. Billy Hamilton took off against the best defensive catcher in baseball, and the best defensive catcher in baseball was like, “welp.” Granted, steals are really more against the pitcher than they are against the catcher, but I’d love to know the last time Molina didn’t even think about making a throw.
The next pitch was another cutter, which Phillips lifted in play into relatively shallow right field. Hamilton did some more budging.
Jon Jay had everything lined up, but Hamilton would’ve been safe even if the throw had been on target. I timed Hamilton at about 3.4 seconds, and that’s tagging up, remember, where you can’t get a lead. Hamilton got himself to third with one out, and that’s the fly-ball advance no one’s going to remember tomorrow. (foreshadowing)
After Joey Votto walked, Jay Bruce came up and got a first-pitch fastball, high. He swung and made contact and lifted the ball a little bit beyond the infield dirt. Focus on those words — “a little bit beyond the infield dirt” — and remember that you’re reading an article about baserunning. Billy Hamilton doesn’t even make sense.
Fine throw. Fine defensive effort all around. No matter. I timed Hamilton at about 3.3 seconds. Here’s another view of the same thing happening:
And just as a still shot of how that pop-up developed:
Jay Bruce hit a pop-up the second baseman could’ve caught. Bruce got credit for a sac fly and an RBI. With literally anybody else in the game, Bruce would’ve returned to the dugout knowing he’d screwed up. He still knew he screwed up, but that’s one of the things about Hamilton — he can erase other people’s mistakes. Billy Hamilton, by himself, turned Jay Bruce’s negative into a positive.
You’re looking at probably one of the most shallow sac flies in baseball history. It’s hard to imagine a sac fly more shallow. Let’s look at the most shallow sac flies from 2013, shall we? We’ll move in chronological order. These are the sac flies hit to what were considered infield zones.
Player fell down making the catch. Easy to advance when the player with the ball falls down.
Player had his back turned, momentum carrying him in the wrong direction. Ballsy baserunning, but it’s easier to advance when the defender’s moving away from you.
Player dropped the ball on the transfer. These days this wouldn’t even be a catch at all. Easy to advance when the ball’s on the ground.
Easy to advance when the defender is Starlin Castro. Castro, here, just zoned out, and didn’t even notice the runner was going until it was too late. In Castro’s defense, Darwin Barney also gave up on the play after the catch, and Barney is a tremendous and tremendously heads-up defensive player.
Player fell down making the catch again.
This time Eric Young just flat beat Norichika Aoki‘s throw. Though Aoki slightly bobbled the baseball, he had forward momentum and his throw was accurate. Young just out-ran the play. In that way, Young pulled a Billy Hamilton just last September, but Aoki, at least, was still clearly in the outfield. An infielder couldn’t have caught the ball that Aoki caught, so the throw had to come from further away and every split-second matters.
Billy Hamilton’s bat got him on first, and Billy Hamilton’s legs got him to home, with limited help. If Bruce’s wasn’t the most shallow ordinary sac fly ever, it’s at least in the conversation, and that’s not a credit to Bruce — that’s all on the baserunner, who didn’t even need to take advantage of a mistake. One of the things with Hamilton is people always operate under the assumption that he’s going to try to advance. He advances almost all the time despite that, being sort of the baserunning version of Mariano Rivera‘s cutter. Yeah, it’s going to happen. What are you going to do about it?
Over his career, Rickey Henderson scored 40% of the time he got on base. Michael Bourn and Jose Reyes are also at 40%. Jimmy Rollins, Carl Crawford, and Jacoby Ellsbury are at 39%. Juan Pierre, 38%. Ichiro Suzuki, 36%. Carlos Beltran, 35%. These are some of the game’s premier recent baserunners, and they’ve all scored at a well above-average clip, where lately the average has been about 29-30%. The question with Hamilton is all about how high that percentage can go. We can say with a high degree of confidence that Hamilton isn’t likely to be a true on-base threat. But an alternative to creating runs by getting on base is squeezing as many runs as you can out of the times you are on base. Hamilton promises to do all this with perhaps unprecedented efficiency, and that’s why the Reds are having him do what he’s doing. Hamilton isn’t going to create runs with his bat — the bat’s just going to put him in position to do what he knows.
No, it’s still not clear Hamilton’s ever going to hit enough. But remember that “enough” for Billy Hamilton is different from “enough” for Oscar Taveras or Jackie Bradley Jr. Wednesday provided a most conspicuous reminder. At the end of the day, Billy Hamilton’s going to settle for mostly singles, but, here’s a baseball riddle for you: when is a single not a single? You’ve read a few hundred words about the answer.
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