If starting Billy Hamilton guaranteed your team would win steals, where would you draft him? It would be arguable Hamilton is the best fantasy baseball prospect in the minor leagues, if that were the case. As everyone knows, the Cincinnati Reds shortstop has already surpassed the 100 steal mark, and season isn’t yet half way over. But – come on, you knew this was coming – there are still a few questions surrounding Hamilton.
How legitimate is his stolen base total? Hamilton is incredibility fast and a talented base stealer, but pause for a second and consider his numbers in context. He’s in High-A, which means Billy’s stolen base numbers can be attributed to, in part, the opposing battery. Generally, minor leaguer pitchers are terrible at keeping runners close to the bag and catchers are almost as bad at throwing them out. As he is promoted, expect the opposition to slow Hamilton down. It may take until he reaches the majors before his ability to steal is challenged, but it will be. He’ll steal a lot of bases, but it would be shocking if reached triple digits.
How much will he get on-base? Every speedster has been told by a coach, “son, you can’t steal first base.” And unless the rules of baseball change, Hamilton’s development will need to continue to progress. Hamilton is fantastic at utilizing his speed to aid his on-base ability. He’s adept at keeping the ball on the ground and bunting for base hits but, he isn’t a slasher. Because of his speed, his BABIP should always be above league average, especially on ground balls. However, plus speed can be extremely effective against shoddy minor league defenders, masking deficiencies. Hamilton has developed at an unbelievable rate in the past year with the bat, and hopefully that will continue. Even if it does, you should expect his BABIP to decrease as opposing defenders become more competent.
Walks may not be important in your league, but every walk is another opportunity for Hamilton to steal one or two bases. Hamilton’s sound approach has helped him pile up walks this year while maintaining an equally impressive contact rate. The contact rate shouldn’t erode too significantly, but the walks will. Advanced pitchers will not be afraid to challenge the slender, powerless switch hitter, which will take a toll on his walk rate.
Where will he play? Every scout I’ve spoken to has little confidence Hamilton will remain at short, with some calling for him to move to the outfield when he’s called up to Double-A. While a position change is premature in my eyes (what is the rush?), a shift right on the defensive spectrum to center field will require more from Hamilton’s bat.
As far as carry tools go, speed is pretty overrated on it’s own. Moreover, it tends to create misleading results in the minor leaguers’ box scores. But, luckily for Hamilton, he’s got strong contact ability too. Those two tools alone are enough to make him a fantasy asset, even if he’s forced to the outfield. Will he win steals for your team on his own? Maybe, but his on-base could be an obstacle. Friend, new colleague Fangraphs-THT (yay!), and Oliver creator Brian Cartwright told me Oliver projected a peak performance of .258/.319/.343 or a .298 wOBA with 75 SB for Hamilton. That’s too light on the batting average for my taste, but it’s far more realistic than many are pegging him for given his current California League campaign. The steals seem dead on too, if you assume he’ll have about 250 opportunities to steal after being allotted 700 plate appearances.
By all accounts Hamilton is a hard worker. His development this year is a testament to that, and it’s wise to be optimistic about his future. Just be realistic. If you’re hoping for Jose Reyes, you will be disappointed. But, if you can sacrifice a handful of home runs and RBI in the outfield, Hamilton could be a key piece in a title run on to of being fantasy baseball’s biggest game-changer.