Billy Hamilton – Better Than We Thought?

Remember Bold Prediction season? Billy Hamilton was a popular subject, with nearly everybody (except me) weighing in on how the controversial speedster would perform. The most common view was a flop. After all, he left winter ball because he couldn’t hit breaking balls. How could he possibly succeed at the major league level?

Then Hamilton struggled through April with a .245/.280/.330 line. His fantastic speed doesn’t play if he only reaches base 28 percent of the time. May saw a slight improvement – .260/.301/.351. He’s caught fire in June with a .356/.391/.576 performance (.367 BABIP). Monthly performance data isn’t useful for analysis, but it can highlight trends. While I don’t recommend reading anything into this particular trend, the body of work suggests we might have sold Hamilton short.

The book on Hamilton was simple – he can’t hit offspeed pitches. But is it true?

Hamilton Pitch Outcomes

Well, yea, it’s true. Judging purely by whiffs, curve balls aren’t a big problem pitch for Hamilton. Sliders, splitters, and change-ups are more of an issue. I’ll link to the results and averages since the sample size is too small for anything but a sniff of the data. He hasn’t hit particularly well against curves even though he isn’t whiffing. So, we can’t reject the “bad against benders” hypothesis.

His overall plate discipline is better than I expected. His swing rate on pitches in the strike zone is about 7 percent below average, his contact rate is six percent above average, and pitchers challenge him with a first pitch strike about two-thirds of the time.

Hamilton Plate Discipline

Before he reached the majors, Hamilton had earned a reputation as a better hitter from the right side. To paraphrase, Hamilton swings like a real hitter as a righty and Juan Pierre as a lefty. As such, we can probably expect more line drives and power against southpaws. The numbers (remember small sample size) have not agreed. With a whopping 66 career plate appearances as a right-handed hitter, we certainly can’t dismiss the scouting report. Either one of two things is likely to happen – he’ll match the scouting report and hit for better power as a righty or he’ll stay the same. He could also get worse, but we don’t have a theoretical explanation for that outcome.

FanGraphs’ new heat maps serve as a nice scouting report. From both sides of the plate, Hamilton prefers pitches down and in. See for yourself

RAA v LHPRAA v RHP

As it turns out, pitchers seem to know this. He sees more pitches on the outer half of the plate.

Pitch v LHPPitch v RHP

Baseball is a game of adjustments. Opposing pitchers are liable to focus more stuff on the outer half of the plate – especially offspeed pitches. No pitcher wants to deal with Hamilton on the bases, where he’s already swiped 28 bags in 36 attempts. As such, he can expect to see a lot of early pitch strikes. His 6.5 percent swinging strike rate could support a much better strikeout rate (currently 17.5 percent). It might be worthwhile for Hamilton to trade some walks for some early count hits on fastballs.

As fans  of sabermetrics, we get caught up in the cult of the walk. Not every player profile is meant to walk frequently. Low power speedsters are always challenged by pitchers. It’s hard to walk when the pitcher is pumping strikes. In some cases, speedsters can offer a higher on base percentage through a “jump on the fastball” approach. Incidentally, we usually hate to see leadoff hitters who don’t work the count. Phillies fans have griped about Jimmy Rollins’ lack of walks since he reached the majors. There’s a very real chance that taking more pitches would not have helped Rollins’ numbers.

Bringing this back to fantasy, Hamilton is one of two active players who can undo a big deficit in stolen bases.  The overall profile suggests there are still plenty of holes in his game for opposing pitchers to exploit. However, the body of work is modestly encouraging. He might be more than the one category stud, four category sinkhole we originally expected.



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Walt
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Walt

“There’s a very real chance that taking more pitches would not have helped Rollins’ numbers.”

See: Castro, Starlin for an example where this was tried unsuccessfully with a free-swinger. At least the Cubs aren’t batting him lead-off, though.

Emcee Peepants
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Emcee Peepants

Rollins, by his swing percentages, is a pretty selective hitter, compared to league averages. As a Phillies fan, my issue with Rollins has always been his overall approach where he has considered himself a power hitter. His career GB/FB of only 1.09 for his career is ridiculous for a player with his speed, as is his career 11.5% IFFB%. Watching Rollins pop up rather than making more of an effort to put the ball on the ground and simply get on base in front of Howard and Utley in their primes (and today) has been an exercise in frustration.

LHPSU
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LHPSU

Carlos Gomez doesn’t exactly have Rollins’ profile, but he’s a counterexample that hitting groundballs don’t necessarily work.

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