The Future-Future Usage of Billy Hamilton

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.

PRPerGame

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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David G. Temple is the Managing Editor of TechGraphs and a contributor to FanGraphs, NotGraphs and The Hardball Times. He hosts the award-eligible podcast Stealing Home. Dayn Perry once called him a "Bible Made of Lasers." Follow him on Twitter @davidgtemple.


37 Responses to “The Future-Future Usage of Billy Hamilton”

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  1. KJOK says:

    I think the better comp would be Vince Coleman. Coleman had an OPS of .651 in 943 AAA PAs. Hamilton has an OPS of .651 in 547 PA. Coleman learned to slap and run to take advantage of his speed as a hitter. Hamilton should be able to do something similar.

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    • Jay says:

      That’s not how comps work. You can’t just point to the guy who succeeded. Andrew McCutchen was a below average hitter in the minors in 2007. Does that mean *mediocre CF prospect in AA* is a future MVP because, like McCutchen, he also plays good defense and shows flashes of power? “Vince Coleman with better defense” is certainly in Hamilton’s range of outcomes, but with so little upside in his bat it’s basically the tip top projection. It’s the projection that says Javier Baez could turn into Troy Tulowitzki, or Oscar Taveras could turn into Vlad Guerrero. It’s something to hope for, not something to bank on.

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      • John C says:

        You’re way off base on McCutchen. McCutchen was BA’s No. 13 prospect going into ’07 and No. 14 going into ’08. He had a .710 OPS at age 20 in a pitcher’s park in a pitcher’s league, and was promoted to AAA late in the season, where he actually increased his OPS. He was a long way from a mediocre prospect.

        With Billy Hamilton, the upside is that he learns to slap the ball well enough and becomes Willie Wilson 2.0. Failing that, you hope he turns into the next Vince Coleman, or even Otis Nixon, either one of which can help you win. Worst-case scenario is that he’s Joey Gathright 2.0 and can’t hit enough to stick in the majors. The only way he’s ever going to resemble Andrew McCutchen is if he gets into A-Rod’s medicine cabinet and takes enough stuff to glow in the dark.

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        • Jay says:

          Okay I think you might have misunderstood what I was going for. I know McCutchen was a top prospect. But the fact remains that he hit poorly in 2007 (below league average). KJOK simply said that Coleman and Hamilton had the same crappy AAA OPS and used it as evidence that Hamilton can be like Coleman. That’s not how it works. If you want to make comparisons between them as players you need to acknowledge the fact that Vince Coleman far exceeded the expectations that would have been placed on him as AAA OF with a .650 OPS. His career ended up being toward the top of the expected ranges people would have considered at the time. Hamilton might do that too, but it’s a mistake to treat Coleman’s career like a floor.

          Also I wasn’t trying to compare Hamilton and McCutchen. Looking back at what I wrote I can see that it was misleading. I was just talking about a general case and how it’s a mistake to forecast a player’s career by finding a successful player and comparing your guy to what that player did in his worst season.

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      • KJOK says:

        “Hamilton might do that too, but it’s a mistake to treat Coleman’s career like a floor.”

        Don’t think anyone said it was the floor – ‘comp’ just means they are similar in some ways.

        “That’s not how comps work. You can’t just point to the guy who succeeded. Andrew McCutchen was a below average hitter in the minors in 2007.”

        yes, you are correct that comps don’t work that way. However, McCutchen was not the example used. The article used Matt Alexander. I said Coleman was probably a better comp. Sure Coleman exceeded expectations but Coleman was never the ‘prospect’ that Hamilton supposedly is either, so presumably he’s ‘ahead’ of where Coleman was, although it’s interesting that they OPS’d the exact same in AAA at the same age.

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    • Quadstriker says:

      How does the tailor-made astro-surface at mid 80s Busch and venues around the league at that time compare to what Billy will play on?

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  2. Tim says:

    Oh, I thought we had gotten bored of Past Billy Hamilton (Who stole 100 bases four times on BBRef and three times here) and Present Billy Hamilton (who probably will never steal 100 bases) already, and were looking toward Billy Hamilton #3.

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  3. Bobby Melody says:

    As noted before-Hamilton has learned to both switch-hit and a new position, albeit CF, over the last two years. Give him a chance to play.

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    • SKob says:

      THIS! Poor kid has only done everything asked of him. Coaches told him to work on batting lefty to make better use of his speed. Awful splits for some time made people think he wouldn’t hit. He then posts a well over .300 average, so they change something else. He loves SS and was pretty good there, but moved to center to move up faster. Spends a year focusing on defense and now everyone questions his hitting again! Gets called up and really only pinch runs… very successfully, though. Starts a couple times and goes 7 for 19 with 2 walks.

      Seems like it’s trendy to pan the kid! Cincinnati actually gets it when many ‘critics’ just don’t. Put him center, let him leadoff, and he will do the rest! Total confidence in him!

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      • tz says:

        I would like to see the Reds stick with him through the ups and downs, if only to show that they’re following through on having him become a premier leadoff hitter.

        Although I never got why they officially moved him to CF, I’d have to guess that a big part is the fear of leg/knee injuries with him staying at SS. As far as I can recall, the only INF who ever stole bases in the majors like Hamilton did in the minors was Maury Wills.

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      • Bip says:

        I agree with this, in that I think he should get a chance to prove himself. However, you’re talking as if there is no reason to be skeptical about him – that most of the skepticism has been unfair. If scouts are saying his bat may not cut it in the majors, then that is a good reason for skepticism.

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        • Brandon says:

          Scouts are notoriously unreliable in their measurement of player potential, because of the enormous margins of error involved in the profession and with human development. Putting your faith in scouts’ forecasts is like putting your faith in economists’ forecasts.

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  4. tz says:

    Hamilton’s minor league hitting since playing full-season ball

    Age 20: 103 wRC+ in low A ball
    Age 21: 128 wRC+ split between high A and AA
    Age 22: 82 wRC+ in AAA ball.

    Yup, we should conclude that the guy’s never gonna be able to hit in the majors.

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  5. Hurtlockertwo says:

    Should his good defense also be counted in his value? A team can run for a slow, good hitting, poor fielding outfielder in the later innings to get the speed on the base and a good defensive replacement in a close game.

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    • Gabriel says:

      Want to echo this — his potential outfield value should be explored. If he could occasionally start (and bat 9th, after the pitcher?) and be a good defensive substitution on days he didn’t start, that’d be very useful to have and his running would just be a bonus.

      Now, I don’t know the scouting reports on his defense. If he’s speedy, but doesn’t read the ball well, that would seriously reduce his value.

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    • snapper says:

      Why do you assume he’s a good defensive CF?

      He just moved to the position, and speed alone doesn’t make you a good CF.

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  6. lex logan says:

    Seems obvious to bat Hamilton ninth, putting his speed in front of the top of the order without giving him the most PA’s in the lineup. My order would be Phillips, Votto, Ludwick, Bruce, Frazier, Mesoraco, Cozart, Pitcher, Hamilton. If Hamilton proves to be a plus defensive player he wouldn’t have to hit all that well to be an asset batting ninth. Phillips had his best season leading off and Votto’s skills are excellent for #2.

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    • Iron says:

      Ludwick batting third puts an awful lot of confidence in a bat that is currently projected to be 100 or below wRC+. I love your idea behind Hamilton 9th. But the Reds lineup is pretty low on top or middle of the order guys to make it work. Maybe Philips, Frazier, Votto, Bruce, Lucwick, Mesoraco, Cozart, Pitcher, Hamilton.

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      • Iron says:

        Not that I’d be happy leading off Phillips and his .310 OBP last year and declining speed in that scenario, but the options are pretty slim.

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      • Bip says:

        It was discovered a while ago that the 3rd lineup spot is actually the 5th most important. The order of the lineup spots in order of importance is

        1, 4, 2, 5, 3, 6, 7, 8, 9

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        • Iron says:

          You have the 4th spot being 5th most important and the 3rd sport being 2nd in your list.

          Also, every single team bats their best hitter 3rd or leadoff (depending on how you define ‘best hitter’). They do not do this because they are stupid.

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        • stevenam says:

          They don’t bat the best hitter #3 because they’re stupid, they do it because it’s always been done that way and there’s a logic to it. That logic, however, is flawed, and statistics tell us that the traditional thinking in batting order is not the smartest.

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    • Mark says:

      If you’re going to bat him at the bottom of the order, then put him in front of the pitcher. Nobody in their right mind would pitch around Hamilton to have the “easy out” of the pitcher, because by the time the second pitch is thrown Hamilton could be on third, and the pitcher could sacrifice him in.

      You would think that if he’s in front of the pitcher he would be likely to see more strikes. Typically pitchers can pitch around the guy in front of the pitcher because they see an easy out, but with Hamilton in front of the P you can’t do that. It also maximizes the value of a SB. A SB is not nearly as valuable behind a power hitter as they’re more likely to hit a HR, so getting that extra base in front of a P is helpful – if Hamilton steals 2B you can sacrifice him to 3B, whereas most guys would still be at 1B as they don’t have the speed to consistently steal second.

      You can ease him into the lineup by having him bat before the P where there’s little pressure, and as he earns more at bats you can move him to the top of the lineup. That would seem like the best way to develop Hamilton and maximize his value in the everyday lineup.

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  7. Gerard Donahue says:

    It’s so hip to bash Billy Hamilton right now. Those crazy, contending Reds are going to stick him out in CF, not having a clue what there doing, while you conjecture a PR future for him. Geez. I guess it’s the “some speed prospects have failed, so all speed prospects must fail” sabermetric.

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    • Bip says:

      This article is exploring a way that Hamilton can succeed, assuming his offense doesn’t develop, which, according to prospect evaluators, it definitely may not. Doesn’t sound like bashing to me.

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  8. Garrett says:

    This article may be a bit premature; Hamilton still doesn’t even have anything more than a cup of coffee in the big leagues yet. Calm down.

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  9. Gabriel says:

    He’s posted very good BB% in the past; albeit short sample size, but still; a 16 BB% in 300 ABs should count for something

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    • Iron says:

      Unfortunately his 6.9% BB% in AAA last year in 547 PA’s counts for more than his 16.9 BB% in AA in 213 PA’s in 2012.

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  10. tz says:

    Just looked up Matt Alexander’s bio. I had always confused him with Herb Washington, but Alexander actually was a ballplayer first, pinch-running specialist second. He played both infield and outfield positions, and actually showed some on-base ability in the minors.

    Who knows, he could have been Chone Figgins before Chone Figgins came along.

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  11. Jeff Zimmerman says:

    One setting to take advantage of Hamilton (and Davis and Dyson) is in leagues with SB and a PA cap. On off days, stick them on your roster and hope for a SB. No PA used up and a SB gained. It works nice in Ottoneu or other leagues with large benches.

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  12. Eighty Want says:

    +1 to hoping the Reds give him some playing time. If not, I may start a Free Billy Hamilton campaign. Free Billy! Free Billy! Even if he can learn to lay down the occasional bunt, that speed should get him on base at a decent clip (then steal 2nd, and possibly 3rd).

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  13. Frank says:

    Yeah, huge overreaction-thon on the internet about Billy Hamilton’s hitting. Let him go up and see if he can’t hit a 250 AVG, 330 OBP with some regular playing time and instruction. He had a bad year hitting in the minors, it’s not the end of him.

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  14. Tony in Asia Pacific says:

    The Reds handing the leadoff spot to Hamilton is high risk, no doubt. I think a better play would have been to close the Bailey for Gardner trade and put Hamilton in the two slot. Back in the day Sparky Anderson, when asked why he batted a slower Pete Rose leadoff and Joe Morgan second would say “to keep the double play in order”. In other words, to stay out of it at the top of the order. Most any other manager at the time would have batted Morgan first and Rose second or third (where he started his Reds career in the lineup).

    As far as the looming decision for the Reds regarding Homer Bailey, I haven’t seen anything indicating Bailey will take a home-team discount. And I can’t blame him as the early Cincy years were not exactly warm and cozy. In regard to the decision/s, including the one already made about not trading with the Yankees, what would you rather have if the team can’t resign Bailey? Brett Gardner or a draft pick? I think the Reds may have missed an opportunity to solve their lead-off needs for the next two or three years and taken pressure off of Hamilton.

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    • M W says:

      You assume the Yankees would have made that trade when all the huhub was that they wouldn’t. Bailey can still be traded if the Reds flop.

      If the trade had happened Hamilton would have started the year in AAA (not batting #2 as you suggest).

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      • M W says:

        And Gardner is slated for FA in 9 months as well, so that wouldn’t have solved the leadoff spot for years.

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