Who is Billy Hamilton? Is he the electrifying second-coming of Tim Raines? Or is he Usain Bolt in baseball spikes? Will he force comparisons to the Billy Hamilton who stole 111 bases in 1891? Or will we someday talk about him in the same expectorant breath as Willie Taveras?
Right now, this very minute, who Billy Hamilton is depends on who you want him to be.
Hamilton has now started in 20 games in 2014. As we are all well aware, almost no definitive conclusions can be drawn from this petri dish of a sample, but clues are there and you ignore them at your peril. And keep in mind dear reader, Hope is a diamond.
What have Hamilton’s first 90+ plate appearances told us?
Overall, he’s hitting .221 with a .253 OBP and a Weighted Runs Created Plus (wRC+) resting at a puny 45. That’s the bad news. If we are searching for some clue that Hamilton might be figuring it out, and if we do that by slicing his 20 starts neatly in half, we can clearly see he’s been better in his second ten games than he has been in his first ten. Billy has had 4 multi-hit games so far, 3 of them coming in his last 10 starts. However, those 3 multi-hit games came against the Pirates and Cubs, pitching staffs ranked 10th and 12th in the National League. Two of those multi-hit games came against pitchers currently with an ERA of 4.35 and higher. Against exceptional pitchers, Hamilton has struggled mightily. In his first 20 starts, he has alarmingly gone hitless in 9 of those games. But only 3 of those have occurred in the previous ten. There are signs he might be figuring something out. Or, he might simply be capitalizing on weaker competition.
What say you? Who is the real Billy?
Last September, Billy the Kid provided a tantalizing taste of the player the Reds believe he might be—havoc personified. When he has reached base this year, he’s shown that same ability to rattle defenses, to drop jaws. He distracted Francisco Liriano into throwing a meatball to Joey Votto, who proceeded to deposit the lefthander’s offering 391 feet into the right field sun deck. Hamilton has scored from third base on a Jay Bruce popup that was infield fly rule ready. I spent hours on Fangraphs looking for a havoc metrics. There is no CAR (Chaos Above Replacement). No BBIP (Bobbled Balls in Play). BILLYf/x? Nope. Not there. And therein lies the danger. Just as we know there’s value we can’t quantify, we have a natural and exuberant tendency to overstate that value.
Let’s also recognize he’s also been thrown out on the bases, as he continues to see major league pitchers’ pickoff moves for the first time. His success rate of 69% coincides precisely with Tom Tango’s break-even demarcation line. That’s got to improve.
Without a doubt, there’s reason to believe in Billy the Kid. From the time he arrived in rookie ball, he’s had an OBP of .383, .340, .410, .413 and .406. Then, he got to AAA and those numbers went south faster than the swallows leaving Capistrano. Is that a function of tougher pitching as he moved up the organizational ladder? More than a few people think so. However, did the move from shortstop to centerfield in Louisville distract Hamilton, interrupt his learning process as a hitter while he made the adjustment to a new and challenging position? His OBP did improve as the year went on. But, he started off so poorly, he was never able to get it back to respectability, finishing at a pedestrian .305.
In 2014, the early trends are concerning. His walk rate of 3.4% so far is alarming. He’s swung a weak bat from the left side, often looking overmatched. His strikeout rate of 21.3% recalls the wrong Hamilton—Josh—and it would be worse were it not for all the bunting.
Billy’s contact rate swinging at pitches inside the strike zone is above 90%, but it’s misleading because again, bunts. Subtract those and that number drops significantly. And speaking of bunting, Hamilton has shown a tendency to bunt the ball with all the touch of a blacksmith, sending the ball to places even he cannot outrun—straight into the gloves of defenders for easy putouts.
The organization has said Billy Hamilton is ready. It’s hard not to believe some of this is bluster. Scouts have said he could do with a few more months in AAA refining his swing. However, he sits at the top of the lineup for a reason: the people who are shepherding him along on his journey to major league longevity believe in him. Repeatedly, it’s been said he’s a quick learner, one who only has to be told something once, where it is then absorbed and put into practice. It’s also been said that he’s remarkably unflappable. He’s a listener, knows what he needs to accomplish and where he’s heading. As VP of Player Development Bill Bavasi said, “He’s a real quick study.” His baseball IQ is pretty high. He knows who he is and what his path is to the big leagues.”
Already, some want him moved down in the lineup, where the air is less stifling. But, if he handles adversity the way those around him say he does, the “pressure” argument might be nothing more than easy armchair psychoanalysis. Pressure comes from within. The pressure on a rookie is undeniable, but it stands to reason that how a player handles pressure has more to do with the makeup of that particular individual than the pressure itself. It’s why one person can tightrope across the Grand Canyon, while another cannot handle the stress of managing the office phones. Pressure comes from your peers. Yet, from all reports, it appears he has the full support of his coaches and teammates, particularly Votto, all whom are likely providing a warm cocoon for the rookie to work and thrive. The pressure argument seems overblown.
Batting Hamilton directly in front of Votto does more than simply allow Joey to see more hittable pitches. If Hamilton reaches, it forces the defense—specifically the first baseman—to play closer to the bag and opens a larger hole for Votto on the right side of the infield. Move Billy and you not only lose that, you increase the number of innings Votto comes to the plate without Billy hitting in front of him because one of the players between them made the last out the previous inning.
Batting 8th or 9th means fewer outs, but it also means fewer opportunities for that one electrifying moment on the basepaths that can change the course of the game. But fewer outs are good. We like fewer outs.
It would be a simple decision if the Reds had a compelling alternative to lead off. But do they? Batting one of your power hitters down there is a non-starter. The increase in OBP will likely be more than offset by the production lost in the middle of the lineup. Brandon Phillips is walking at a 2.9% rate. Todd Frazier is the one player who you could make an argument for leading off. He’s begun the season with a modest .330 OBP. But even that is above his career norms. And again, you lose the protection for Votto, so the benefit would seem to be negligible.
The odds on Hamilton making a difference may be getting longer, but if he can figure it out, the payoff could be substantial, and in the end, this might be the best case for why he should stay right were he his for now. If he can prove himself a patient hitter who can turn himself into the Norris Hopper of bunting, the offense stands to be transformed once he learns pitcher idiosyncrasies and opposing catchers’ tendencies. Maybe.
But, Maybe is an unreliable buddy with whom to ride shotgun. Maybe is the roommate who tends to be nowhere around when the rent is due. How long the Reds continue the experiment is directly related to their won/loss record. Win—and the Billy Express rolls on and patience abides. Struggle—and the real pressure will be on Price and the front office to rethink.
So far, Billy Hamilton is the proverbial riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.
But not for long.