[Edit.: This thought-provoking post was submitted by loyal Nation member, Ben Rubin. You may remember Ben for posting his account from Behind Enemy Baselines at Citi Field in New York. Ben is a Cincinnati native, currently living in Jersey City, New Jersey, where he is a graduate student and adjunct professor of writing. Thanks for your contribution, Ben! - SPM]
I’m a Billy Hamilton believer. He’s developing patience at the plate, has shown a willingness to take walks in the minors and spring training, and will eventually either learn how to lay down a bunt, or stop trying. I expect that Billy Hamilton, the sophomore, can get on base at a league average rate.
But that’s moot right now because Billy Hamilton, the rookie, at least the April rookie, has proved to be a black hole of Patterson/Taveras/Stubbs dimensions at the top of the lineup. The Reds simply can’t afford to let him hit first right now.
As of this writing, Hamilton is hitting .221/.253/.279. League average OBP for the lead-off hitter is .332. Hamilton’s BB/K is one of the worst in the league. In 2012, when Reds fans were screaming about Dusty Baker continuing to hit Drew Stubbs and Zack Cozart at the top of the order, their respective wRC+s were 65 and 83. Billy Hamilton’s is 45.
Hamilton’s performance is understandable because of the pressure he is under. This is his first month in a job so difficult most of us can’t even comprehend what it would entail. Add to that the fact that he’s learning with the eyes of not only Reds country, but the whole country, on him. Plus, the guy he is replacing was the best at his particular job in the entire major leagues.
Look no further than Jay Bruce, or Homer Bailey for examples of players with all the talent in the world, who took some time in the majors to realize their potential. Billy Hamilton will be fine eventually, but in the meantime, Bryan Price ought to do everything he can to limit the pressure while his young star learns on the job.
Slotting him lower in the order would do that. But the case I want to make here is that he should be hitting ninth, not eighth. Hear me out. My case rests on three related points:
1) Batting him lower in the order will limit the total number of PAs he receives, and hence the number of outs he makes. It will also reduce the pressure of the situations in which he comes up, allowing him to relax a little and just see what happens.
2) When he’s on base, Hamilton provides a significant advantage. Hamilton’s particular skills make him adept at scoring. Advanced metrics are much more tentative in assessing this half of the run scoring equation compared to the OBP half. This is in part because scoring percentage is highly dependent on the batter behind him, and therefore hard to isolate. But it has been pretty well established that Hamilton’s base running skills play a significant role in the rate at which he scores when he does get on. Plus, his proven ability to be his own get ‘em over, and sometimes even his own get ‘em in, could lessen the temptation on a manager to give up outs for bases, which is extra beneficial at the top of the order where the outs he would be saving are presumably those of top level hitters.
3) Then there is the question of his proximity to Votto. Votto himself has attested to the fact that he gets better pitches to drive when Hamilton is on base, and we’ve seen ample evidence. Half of Votto’s home runs this year have come with Hamilton on base. There is no way to quantify Hamilton’s distracting presence on the bases, but assuming it is a real thing, its value is maximized by proximity to the best hitters. This relationship also works the other way. Hitting in front of patient hitters maximizes the value of Hamilton’s skill set. More pitches seen mean more opportunities to steal. And no one sees more pitches than Votto.
At the start of the season, this set of facts presented Reds management with a dilemma: How to capture the advantages of batting him at the top of the order with the reduced costs of batting him at the bottom. Fortunately for the Reds, a solution presented itself when manager Bryan Price moved Joey Votto to second in the batting order.
With Votto batting second, Billy Hamilton could bat ninth, reducing his plate appearances and the pressure that comes with high-leverage at bats and leading off. By hitting after the pitcher and Cozart, Hamilton would less often hit with runners on base and be looked at to deliver RBIs.
Yet, batting Hamilton ninth would offer similar Votto-proximity benefits to batting leadoff. His primary job will remain the same: get on base then get himself around to score. That is putting your player in the best position to succeed.
Billy Hamilton’s ultimate home in the batting order is leading off. His legs give him too many ways to get on base: the infield single, the bunt single, the bloop single (that becomes a double) just over the heads of the drawn in infield to protect against the first two. But if the Reds expect to contend this year, they have to let him learn and get comfortable in a spot where his OBP is not so critical.
Billy Hamilton is an unusual player with a highly pronounced set of strengths and weaknesses. One of the reasons so many of us were frustrated with Dusty Baker was his unwillingness to step outside conventional rules of thumb and manage the team he had. Our greatest hope for Bryan Price was that he would approach situations less hobbled by tradition. He rewarded us first, by batting Votto and Bruce back-to-back, then by moving Votto to the second spot. It is time for Price to show the same kind of creativity with Billy Hamilton.
So if Hamilton hits ninth, who bats first? That’s a question that deserves its own column. In brief, without a prototypical leadoff type player on the roster, the Reds will have to make due. Candidates include other current starters like Todd Frazier or Devin Mesoraco. Even Brandon Phillips would be an improvement over Hamilton. One other option is Chris Heisey.