Reds can’t let Hamilton lead off

On Monday in St. Louis, Cincinnati Reds center fielder Billy Hamilton led off the game with a single to right field against Michael Wacha. Or at least it would have been a single, had it been struck by 99.9 percent of hitters who have ever played baseball. Instead, Hamilton never stopped running, and not only did he turn the single into a double, he was almost on second before the cutoff man even received the throw. It was an astounding display of speed, and it shows why Hamilton is considered such a promising player.

Unfortunately, that hit was Hamilton’s first of the season, and was only his second time on base. Add another hit Tuesday night, and Hamilton has bumped his average up to .091, with an .130 on base percentage. Hamilton has yet to score a run. He has yet to steal a base. And while it’s early, the total lack of production from the top of the lineup is a big part of why the Reds have lost six of their first eight, and have scored just 2.86 runs per game, tied with Houston for 26th in MLB.

It’s also a big reason why Joey Votto has only one run driven in. It’s much too soon to discuss sending Hamilton to the minors, but it’s not at all too soon to make an easier change: Cincinnati needs to get him out of the leadoff spot immediately.

When pitching coach Bryan Price was named to replace the decidedly old-school Dusty Baker, many thought the first-time manager would bring some fresh thinking. (Over the winter, Pryce raised eyebrows by saying he would prefer not to use relievers situationally for just a batter, preferring longer appearances.) And while some of that has held true — 31-year-old Manny Parra got his first career save Sunday, pitching both the eighth and ninth innings — some of his choices when the Reds are batting seem like more of the same.

For example, it has been proved time and again that the most valuable thing a leadoff hitter can do is get on base. Speed is helpful, but it’s useless without the ability to reach base. Hamilton isn’t doing that now, and he also didn’t do it last year (putting up just a .308 OBP in Triple-A). Combined with the declining Brandon Phillips (with an OBP steadily dropping from .353 to .321 to .310 to .303 in the past four years) atop the lineup, Votto and Jay Bruce more often than not come up without anyone on base to drive in.

[+] EnlargeJoey Votto
Mike McGinnis/Getty Images
You can’t expect Votto to drive in runs if no one is on base.
Votto, in particular, seems to get endless amounts of heat from fans who merely look at his RBI totals as though that’s all that determines the success of a middle-of-the-order hitter. He’s not off to a red-hot start this year, but he’s also had all of five runners in scoring position when he’s been up coming into Tuesday night. The one run he has driven home wasn’t Hamilton or Phillips, but pitcher Alfredo Simon, who singled to lead off the sixth Sunday, which means Simon had as many hits and more runs scored than Hamilton going into Tuesday night.

Cincinnati’s in-game decisions have been questionable as well. When Hamilton did get that hit off of Wacha, the Reds had a runner on second and none out. Phillips then sacrificed himself by bunting Hamilton to third. (Price’s postgame comments were vague on whether he or Phillips made that call.) Because a runner on second is already in scoring position — to say nothing of the fact that Hamilton’s speed made him likely to score on just about any hit — the move made the Reds less likely to score. (And they didn’t.)

Between 1993-2010, teams with a runner on second and no outs scored an average of 1.170 runs. With a runner on third and one out, it drops to 0.989. The extra base isn’t worth the lost out, especially when Hamilton might have just stolen third anyway.

Optimized lineup
When former leadoff man Shin-Soo Choo and his .423 OBP departed for Texas, a downgrade in production was expected, but perhaps not to this extent. So what would be a better lineup for the Reds? For that, we can use the lineup optimizer tool at For inputs, we’ll use Steamer’s 2014 projections, because the real 2014 numbers are too small and players such as Hamilton and Ryan Ludwick had limited playing time in 2013.

The outcome is that every one of the “best” Cincinnati lineups features Hamilton batting ninth — yes, behind the pitcher — and Votto first, because of his elite on-base skills. (No one has been better since he arrived in the bigs.) Of course, no one expects Price to really go to such extremes, and forcing Votto to hit with no one on every game isn’t ideal, so a more realistic proposal: move Hamilton to eighth (or ninth). Move Todd Frazier to the top.

If, perhaps, that sounds crazy — Frazier has 11 career steals — then consider how sane it is to have a hitter who has shown little ability to get on base above Double-A make outs ahead of the middle of the lineup. Frazier is no star, but his career line of .251/.322/.450 is brought down by a tough 2011 debut and is still good for 10 percent better than league average per wRC+. Even average would be a big improvement for the run-scoring outlook of this team.

The problem, really, is that this is a below-average offensive roster without Choo. Last year, MLB batters averaged a .322 OBP. Among Reds, only Votto and Bruce beat that last year; only Votto and Bruce were projected to beat that this year. Tweaking the lineup would help, but it can’t erase the roster’s flaws.

Worth waiting on
To repeat: 23 plate appearances over the first week of the season are absolutely not a worthwhile sample size. If they were, we’d be talking about Emilio Bonifacio’s .500/.548/.571 line as if it were a real thing and not a first-week blip. It’s premature to judge Hamilton’s job security at this point, and even if it weren’t, the Reds don’t have better alternatives. Backup center fielder Roger Bernadina has a .238/.307/.358 career line over parts of seven seasons, while veteran Skip Schumaker (currently sidelined with a shoulder injury) is 34 years old and not an asset on either side of the ball.

Hamilton’s speed is otherworldly, and he obviously deserves more than a week to prove himself, especially when most of that week is spent facing Wacha, Adam Wainwright, Lance Lynn and the outstanding St. Louis staff. (He also sat a few days with a thumb injury.) If the Reds are to be successful in 2014, they’ll need Hamilton on base and productive. But until he proves he can do that — and after that .308 Triple-A OBP, it remains a big open question — he doesn’t need to be hurting the lineup daily at the top of the order. If he proves he can be even an average hitter, he can always move back.

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Mike Petriello used to write here, and now he does not. Find him at @mike_petriello or

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