Billy Hamilton, As Advertised

Monday, against the Twins, Billy Hamilton stole four bases. In so doing, he reached 40 steals on the year before anyone else reached 30. Probably even more impressive: Hamilton now has more steals than exactly half the teams in baseball. He has more than the White Sox and Dodgers combined. Over the course of the past month, Hamilton has stolen 20 bases, and second and third place on the leaderboard combined have stolen 19 bases. Over that same month, Hamilton has more stolen bases than he has hits.

It’s funny now to reflect on some of the things I wrote in 2014. Early on, when Hamilton started to hit, I decided he wasn’t a caricature. When it all ended, I asked why Hamilton hadn’t been a base-stealing dynamo. Now Hamilton is a base-stealing dynamo. And he’s a terrible hitter. He can’t hit, but he does run, and when he’s on the other side of things, he can play a mean center field. Which means, in a way, Billy Hamilton now is something of a caricature. He’s an exaggeration of a player type, which is exactly how he was advertised.

Last year, I think, we all achieved a little Hamilton fatigue. It was his first full year, and in some senses it underwhelmed, and there was a lot written already during his 2013 cup of coffee. But if you’re still fatigued, that’s your own fault. Hamilton has gone full oddity, full anomaly, having learned a thing or two from his long rookie season. Pitchers have mostly learned how to get him out, but when they fail, Hamilton has mostly learned to take full advantage.

Here’s one of those stolen bases from Monday:

Everything happened fast. Hamilton ran fast. The pitcher delivered fast. The catcher delivered fast. Hamilton arrived safely, in under 3.1 seconds from first move. Here’s another of the stolen bases, right on the heels of a different steal:

From first move, Hamilton arrived in under 3 seconds. Given the math, that makes him almost impossible to throw out. Yet the throw beat him by a hair — and still Hamilton was safe. The Twins did just about everything perfectly, but Hamilton got his bag. When stealing third this year, Hamilton is 12 out of 12.

You’d be hard-pressed to find a worse regular hitter in baseball than Billy Hamilton. To this point, Statcast has only confirmed what we already suspected — Hamilton doesn’t hit the ball hard, and he puts way too many of them in the air. For Hamilton, a fly ball is just about an automatic out. And you can’t expect Hamilton to draw too many walks when pitchers know they can go right after him in the zone. But to Hamilton’s credit, he made a very smooth transition into playing center field. And now the baserunning is there, like we expected it to be. A season ago, there was a lot of running, but also plenty of mistakes. Those same mistakes now are harder to find.

It’s not that Hamilton is any faster — it’s that he’s improved his situational awareness. He has a better idea, now, when to steal. He exercises a bit more patience. He better understands what’s going on around him. He has better reads of the pitchers. Paul Goldschmidt is a good example of what you can accomplish on the basepaths just by being smart and aware. Hamilton shows what happens when you combine those smarts with instincts and an impossible first step.

When stealing bases, Hamilton has improved his success rate from 71% to 87%. Last year, he was picked off eight times; this year, he’s been picked off just two times. Last year, also, Hamilton was thrown out three times trying to score. This year he has yet to make a single out on the bases that wasn’t part of a steal attempt. Hamilton’s starting to look like a nearly-perfect baserunner. When, you know, he’s given the opportunity to base-run.

So Hamilton’s already at +10 runs on the bases this year, with the Reds having played 75 games. Since 2002, the best individual baserunning-value mark is +14.1 runs, by 2012 Mike Trout and 2008 Willy Taveras. Hamilton’s closing in on that in advance of the All-Star Game, and he’s also done well in the outfield. I want to show you something fun, that I think highlights the way Hamilton is exceptional. What is he? A bad hitter, and a good runner and defender. So here’s a plot, showing qualified 2015 hitters. On the x-axis, pure batting value. On the y-axis, combined baserunning and defensive value.

billy-hamilton-baserunning-defense-batting-value

Hamilton is there, all by himself. He has baseball’s highest combined baserunning and defensive value. A little behind is Kevin Kiermaier, but Kiermaier can hit. Further behind is Lorenzo Cain, but Cain can hit. Ditto A.J. Pollock. Hamilton doesn’t quite hit like a pitcher, but he does hit like one of those pitchers we call good hitters, relative to other pitchers.

Let’s take it all the way back to 2002. We’ll look at the same plot, for all qualified hitter seasons, including the partial 2015, so we can see where Hamilton stands at the moment.

billy-hamilton-baserunning-defense-batting-value-2002-2015

Hold on a second:

billy-hamilton-barry-bonds

That’s better.

Hamilton isn’t all by himself, but he’s clearly toward the fringes, and, again, his team’s season isn’t even half over yet. So he could get only more extreme. He probably won’t have the worst batting season in the sample. In 2002, Neifi Perez was worth -44 batting runs. In 2006, Clint Barmes was worth -43. But, consider this: Hamilton is at +22.9, in combined baserunning and defense. The biggest number in the pool is +35.5. So that’s within reach. And, in terms of the difference between batting value and combined baserunning and defense, Hamilton has a current gap of 37.4 runs. The biggest such gap in the pool (in the same direction) is 62.9 runs. That belongs to 2013 Alcides Escobar, who finished with a 49 wRC+. He was a perfect 22 out of 22 on steals.

By the end of this season, Hamilton could remove himself from the pack. It would require that he keep not hitting, and maybe that’s a stretch, since the Rangers are thinking about sitting Leonys Martin, who’s also not hitting. But Hamilton does that other stuff, and the Reds are unlikely to give up on him in this kind of year. They know he’s not hitting, but they also know his feet allow him to maximize the times he does get on base. You could think of it as increasing Hamilton’s “effective” slugging percentage. And there’s the defense. The defense and the baserunning are unlikely to go away. Which gives us Billy Hamilton, maybe the game’s weirdest everyday player.

People used to wonder how bad a hitter Andrelton Simmons could afford to be, given what he can do as a shortstop. Hamilton is sort of the same idea in practice. He’s really a very bad hitter, but he establishes such a high floor with his range and his legs that it seems like he’s still worth playing almost every day. Maybe you don’t agree with the WAR calculation. Maybe you simply can’t buy that a hitter as bad as Hamilton can still be valuable. But we can agree on this: if any player this bad at hitting can still be valuable, it’s this player. This one solitary freak.

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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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joser
Guest
joser

Obviously it would help if he changed his swing so that he hit more balls on the ground. It wouldn’t help a lot, of course, because most groundballs are outs, but it should help a little since he’d be forcing the fielders to actually throw him out and they’ll have to be fast and smooth to do so, which should lead to a few more hits (or at least reached-on-errors) than he gets right now when the fielders just have to squat under a fly ball and his speed to first is irrelevant.

But is he trying to bunt for a hit very much? I don’t know where to look for attempted bunt stats, but it seems like that should be something he’s doing at least once a game.

Mark
Guest
Mark

This is the closest I could find – Bunts in play. He leads the league in bunts in play at 24, the next closest is Dee Gordon at 15.

http://stats.washingtonpost.com/mlb/getleaders.asp?rank=191

Swfcdan
Guest
Swfcdan

Try telling Billy Burns that most groundballs are outs, Dee Gordon too. When you are that fast you can beat a GB to short.

It’s awful that coaches can’t configure his swing just to hit more grounders than flyers, very few speedsters hit like he does for a reason. I mean is Dee Gordon a good hitter? Hell no, he just knows how to use his skillset.

Reds coaches should be working on an overhaul of his swing in the offseason. Should have happened last offseason…