As the 2014 season approaches, the Cincinnati Reds are left with the unenviable task of figuring out exactly what to do with Billy Hamilton. After his September call-up, Hamilton electrified fans. In 13 games, he went 13 of 14 in stolen base attempts and scored 9 runs. He also managed to hit .368 in that span with a .105 ISO. If scouting reports and minor-league track records are to be believed, only two of those three stats should be taken to heart when projecting his future value. In 2013, in AAA, Hamilton had a .308 OBP and .657 OPS. He swiped 75 bags during that time, but the word is out on him — at this point, he just doesn’t have great hitting skills.
Hamilton will almost certainly be a part of the 2014 Reds roster, it’s the capacity at which he’ll be used that is up in the air. His speed (and its impact on his defense) is his asset, and putting him at the top of the lineup will give him the most chances to use that asset. This will also exploit his biggest weakness. Hiding his weakness by putting him at the bottom of the order will lose him a lot of opportunities to use his legs. I’m sure the Reds will wait to see how he fairs in Spring Training before making any decisions, but Hamilton’s status is currently in limbo.
“No one’s ever given me the time to show what I can do,” he says, a lean, tightly-muscled sprinter’s body slipping into uniform. “What people don’t understand is that it’s never a lack of opportunity, just time. I could hit .260 if I played every day up here. Maybe .270, .280 with a good hitting instructor. But a lot of the time, when a player’s called up, it’s those first few weeks that count. If you don’t get in the lineup, you become an extra man the rest of your career.”
It’s easy to imagine Hamilton saying such things toward the end of this April, but that quote is actually from 1979 and belongs to Matt Alexander, the most proficient pinch-runner in baseball history. He holds the records among pinch runners in appearances (271), steals (91), and runs scored (89). He appeared in 374 games, but logged a mere 195 plate appearances. He only amassed 4.3 BsR in nine seasons, and stole bases at a 60% career rate. Yet the A’s and Pirates used him almost exclusively for pinch running. Alexander ended his career worth -.5 wins above replacement. His skills on the base paths just weren’t good enough to really make him an effective player in such a small role.
Which brings us back to Hamilton. Whether he hits first, ninth, or somewhere in the middle, he’s going to get a chance in the lineup in 2014. His early struggles might be forgiven due to his age and inexperience, but eventually — again, if Hamilton hits like we think he will — the columns and blog posts regarding what the Reds should do with him will start cropping up. What is a team to do with a no-hit, all-speed/glove outfielder? There are many options. Here are a few.
1. Send him down, tell him to work on his hitting.
2. Trade him to a team that loves speed, hope to get something of value in return.
3. Cross your fingers and pray that he learns to hit enough to turn into a poor man’s Michael Bourn.
4. Take the bat out of his hands, relegate him to pinch runner/defensive replacement.
Though the rate of change has been somewhat gradual, the role of pinch runner is slowly dying. Teams just aren’t subbing them in at the same clip anymore. There could be a lot of reasons for this. Teams are stealing less and less, and are starting to only send the players that have a good-to-great success rate. Roster spots are certainly at a premium, as teams carry such a large swath of relievers now. This leaves precious few bench spots for defensive replacements and pinch hitters — the latter still being a big need for NL teams. With a very limited number of bench players, it’s perhaps not kosher to “waste” one by having them pinch run. It just might be more appealing to GMs to use that 25th spot on a lefty-specialist or big bench bat rather than on a player used mostly for base running and stealing. Billy Hamilton, however, is no ordinary base runner.
It’s hard to project how valuable Hamilton would be if he were just a pinch-runner, as there aren’t really any test cases with which to compare. In the height of Matt Alexander’s pinch-running feats, he appeared in 90 games in one season. During his short stint in 2013, Hamilton accumulated 2.7 BsR in 13 games. Extrapolating those numbers for 90 games over, say, four years nets almost 75 BsR. That would be good enough for about 8th best in the past 40 years. While that’s very impressive, it’s not very realistic. After a while, the book will start to come out on Hamilton — when he likes to run, the best ways to keep him close on first, etc. It would be unfair to just use a calculator and say he’d be the 8th best base runner of the past 40 years if he were strictly used as a pinch runner. But say he’d be worth 60 BsR, or even 50. Are those numbers high enough to keep him on as a specialized bench player? The easy answer is that if we can project him to be worth more runs that the current 25th man on the roster, then, yes. It would be worth keeping him around as a runner and defensive replacement. And it’s not like he doesn’t have arms. If the Reds really need a pinch hitter in a long game, they could certainly give him a bat and hope for the best
I’m not arguing that Hamilton should certainly be relegated to such a specialized role. I am saying that it is certainly worth a try. Hamilton is currently 23 years old, and, at least according to aging curves, he has about four years of base-stealing productivity left. He may push that number higher due to his extreme grasp of the skillset, but he’s not going to be the same player when he hits 30. I doubt the Reds would even try the pinch-running experiment in 2014, opting instead to allow Hamilton to get at-bats and work out the kinks. But the time may soon come when Cincinnati will have to decide to keep Hamilton on the bench strictly for his legs. It wouldn’t be the first time. Oakland owner Charlie Finley kept full-time pinch runners on his teams through much of the 1970s. In fairness, an idea is not a good one simply because Charlie Finley tried it. The opposite might be true, in fact.
Hamilton might prove himself a worthy-enough hitter in 2014 and make this whole argument moot. Who knows? But if his subpar on-base skills and total lack of power end up costing his team about as much as his legs help them, it might be time to send him on a different path and let Billy Hamilton surpass Matt Alexander as the best specialty pinch runner the game has ever seen. The immediate future of Billy Hamilton seem fairly obvious. It’s the future beyond that future that brings on all sorts of tough questions and wonderful possibilities.
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