Thinking Inside the Box

The Diary of Billy the Kid

I want to show you something:

.246/.321/.403

That is the National League average slash line for all hitters who aren’t pitchers.

Now I want to show you something else:

.295/.316/.420

What’s that look like to you? Pretty good, huh? Right around league average OBP, very solid power. Sure, this player could take a few more walks, but no one is complaining about him player in the lineup, especially when I tell you he’s a dynamite center fielder and the greatest base running force MLB has seen in years.

Of course, you know who I’m talking about already. At least you do if you’re paying any attention. I’m talking about Billy Hamilton.

But wait a minute, you say. Hamilton is hitting .260/.299/.370 (yesterday’s numbers). You are correct, I say. I have merely taken out his first three games. I do this for two reasons.

1. Hamilton has said publicly that he was a disaster during that first series. He says he didn’t sleep and was constantly in fear of being sent down. Call it butterflies, but it’s safe to say he wasn’t at his best. That’s not really the most interesting of my two reasons, though.

2. Narrative. Let me explain.

So much of how we talk about baseball is guided by the narrative numbers provide for us. The current narrative for Billy Hamilton is that he really struggled initially, but is starting to come to life and maybe – maybe – he’ll get it together enough to play.

But imagine something. Imagine that Hamilton’s 0-12 (with 1 BB) to start the season had just happened over his last three games. What’s the narrative then? It’s probably that he started great and just hit a bump the road. Sure, we’d like him to walk more, but we’re feeling pretty good about him.

Both are right. Both are right because these kinds of things happen to all baseball players, but they happen, more or less, at random. A hot start can end as a “really good season where he cooled off at the end” and a cold start can end as “a decent season he managed to salvage with good second half.” This can be the story for two players with the exact same numbers.

I’m not telling you to ignore Billy Hamilton’s first three games. I certainly won’t ignore them, but I do think it’s a good idea to look at the context they provided for us. Though it has cooled lately, there was a lot of talk early about Hamilton being overmatched. But no one would ever call the the player Hamilton has been since those first three games overmatched. With Hamilton’s speed and defense, they might call him an all-star.

As much as we might want to, we haven’t seen nearly enough of Hamilton to know who he is yet. My money is right where it has been for some time: average major leaguer with a high ceiling and a low floor. I don’t know who he’ll be. I might not even know at the end of this season, but it’s important we all acknowledge that the sample is still small. Sit back. Watch a game. See what happens. I’m always being told, “that’s why they play the games.” Let ‘em play.

39 thoughts on “The Diary of Billy the Kid

  1. Thank Jason, thank you. The other thing to add is that he has gotten progressively better as the season rolls on, since April 18th: .333/.361/.509. He has not K’d in over 40 plate appearances – “40”.

    I’ve been ridiculed on this site for my sky high opinion and expectations for this kid but here is a real shocker: this kid is the future of this franchise and will be it’s face for many years to come “if” he can stay healthy.

    Thank you again for such a sober analysis.

    • 100% with you Charlotte. I was not from the camp that wanted some Grady Sizemore on the club stealing Billy’s playing time. As I have said before, he is a quick study and has improved during the season at every level he’s been. He may ultimately prove us wrong, but I like how he has grown so much in just a month. Kudos to the Reds for just sticking him in there and letting him learn.

  2. I like what I’ve been seeing, and I remain confident that BHam will be not just a solid contributor but a major part of the Reds offense. I do want to see him be a little more patient and increase his walk rate. I love that nugget from Charlotte on 40 straight plate appearances without a K. Really? If it’s correct that’s an excellent sign. And I agree with the less bunting or better bunting wing of the party. Please. Surely Norris Hopper is available to come tutor young Mr. Hamilton. Finally, I would like to see him be just a little more selective about stealing. There’s no reason he shouldn’t be successful more than 80% of the time. Says here his OBP will top .330 by the end of the year, he’ll lead the league in triples and in runs scored per reaching base rate or whatever that stat is called and lead RLN in “I’m starting to believe” quotes. Imagine what the Reds offense might look like if we were thrilled with the results from 6 of 8 starting slots: Hamilton, Phillips, Votto, Frazier, Bruce, and Mesoraco (plus the bench). Okay maybe that’s a bit of a stretch but I like what I’m seeing with BHam.

    • 100% with you on the bunting and it is probably a pretty large wing of the party, as you say. Here is why I have been SO high on Billy: he not only learns but he retains what he learns. His knowledge is cumulative beyond the normal player. His biggest issues early on this season were pop-ups and K’s. He has greatly reduced the former and virtually eliminated the latter.

      He worked with DeShield’s in ST on the bunting and my memory is that he improved as camp wore on. The comment that stuck with me is, he needs to concentrate on “first” getting the ball down and “then” worry about running to first. This would not apply to the drag bunt, which he appears proficient at. You know , I think he will get it and become a good to very good at bunting in time. As quick a study as young Mr. Hamilton is, he probably could use a refresher course from DeShields.

      I worry sometimes on the high value that is placed on walks because, IMO, it can effect a hitters aggressiveness. He will never be Joey Votto in plate discipline but over time, I think you will find him more than adequate. I do believe this will come slower than improvements in hitting, bunting and base stealing.

      • I sort of agree with you on the walks but from a different perspective. I think that he may have trouble drawing walks because pitchers are being aggressive with him. They are going to pound the zone and Hamilton needs to be ready to hit those pitches. I’d love for him to walk more but it may not happen and if he can bring the average up, that’s ok. It’s the getting on base that matters. The “how” is less important.

        • What has impressed me, to some degree lately, is the ability to “fight off” the less desirable pitches. If this continues to develop, I would expect at least a League average walk-rate in time but your point is a good one.

          But as far as “how” he gets on base, I’m in 100% agreement. Heck, this guy might find ways to get on-base we haven’t thought of (smile). Another value that might be overlooked, is him reaching base on a force-out. Normally a force out is seen as trading one base runner for another; in BHam’s case this is turned on its head.

      • For a guy like Hamilton, who’ll always have a low SLG, the old statement that “a walk’s as good as a hit” is much more true.

  3. I’ve been thinking for the past couple of weeks that the whole “this kid should not be leading off” talk has gotten stale. This post helps confirm that belief in me. Maybe he isn’t an ideal leadoff guy, but honestly how many teams have THE “ideal” leadoff guy anyway. I’m happy to see him succeeding, especially with all of the pressure that has been put on his shoulders.

  4. Another prime example of why this site has become pretty much the exclusive place I go to for Reds talk. Nice.

  5. I will once again admit that I started this season in then, “not a snowcone’s chance in hell he turns out as a decent player” camp. I’ve seen so many speed guys that just couldn’t cut it with the bat and their gloves were iffy. But, if he maintains this pace, I will be forced to come over and say that perhaps WJ knew what he was doing with this one. He picked up the low-pressure backup in Skip-Schu in case it all went to hell in a handbasket and then handed the reigns over with the phrase, “he’s learned quickly in all the other leagues.”

    Still, it’s a long season, and I want to see his wRC+ come up to average before I’m signing on to the Fan Club, but I’m no longer skeptical he has the tools to do the job. It’s just a matter of finding out whether his ceiling is high enough to make him a permanent fixture. Speed guys have notoriously short careers, so I’d hate to see the Reds make him a long-term Red without really knowing what they’ve got.

  6. I agree with the narrative comment. The first month is always the most difficult for fans to let go of. See Zack Cozart’s hot starts in 2011 and 2012.

    Jason downplays the lack of walks, but that’s a real red flag. As Charlotte has pointed out, B-Ham hasn’t struck out in 40 ABs. He also has only drawn 2 walks during that time too. Since he is only seeing 3.33 pitches/AB (BP is seeing 3.56!), it appears that Hamilton’s “adjustment” has been to swing early and often. Yes, I realize that # includes his ABs where he bunts on the 1st/2nd pitch, but that’s completely fair imo, since he is essentially making the same decision BP makes when he swings at the first pitch.

    The Reds can play the hot hand if they want (and really, they don’t have many alternatives given their terrible offense), but Hamilton has done little to make me think he can be effective leadoff hitter long term.

    Something has changed in Hamilton’s approach since AA, and not for the better. So far, he’s just a speedy version of Zack Cozart. It’s always fun to project players based on their hot streaks, but it’s highly doubtful B-Ham will be anything like a 0.280+ hitting, meaning his OBP will be capped at 0.310, which really stinks.

    Right now, I think B-Ham and Chapman have a lot in common: they are “sexy” side attractions that are more flash than substance. Perhaps Hamilton has proven that he “belongs” in MLB, but his performance falls far, far short of projecting to be a star, or saying that he is the future of the Reds organization.

    • The Chapman effect is something I’ve been considering quite often. The Reds seem to be good at attracting sideshows that sell tickets. As a small club, I wonder how long the leash is extended on folks like Chapman and Hamilton, since they put butts in seats with “super-human” abilities (cue Stan Lee sitting behind a desk mumbling).

      Still, I think calling this a hot streak for Hamilton may be a bit unfair. His numbers for this season (even with it only being a month of data, small sample caveat) fall right in line with his career numbers at AA/AAA (other than his walk rate which is way way down, but you discussed that).

      If you knock off 10 AB from his current total (I’m not sure how many bunt attempts there have been, but let’s call it 10 for argument) under the idea that he won’t walk when he’s sent up there to bunt-for-a-hit (essentially only looking at the at-bats where he legitimately worked the count, etc), his walk rate jumps up to 5.3%, which is within 2-sigma of his career rate.

      Will he be an all-star this year? Probably not. But he’s making great strides toward being a substantially better player than someone who is a flashy Cozart.

  7. I think the really interesting thing about that slash line is the above average SLG. This is further evidence of how much his speed can impact other aspects of the game. In this case, that’s not really a measure of power but of speed. Singles=doubles, doubles=triples. Contact has been the issue all along, and hitting the ball on the ground. He seems to have figured those things out. At every level of the minors, he has struggled at first, but ultimately excelled (except AAA, which he wasn’t in long enough to “figure out”). This is pretty much the player I expected him to be by the end of the year, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t shocked that this is the player he is in May.

    • If you are smart and lucky with a pinch of wisdom, learning is cumulative. He doesn’t appear to have to re-learn the things he has figured out. Thus, the accelerated pace of his development this year. I really don’t see this guy looking back. Very excited for him and the team.

  8. I wonder what his SLG would be if his stolen bases counted as 2B/3B in comparison to station to station guys like Votto, David Ortiz, etc. I’m also curious if there is an ‘errors forced’ stat. I would be thrilled if he keeps this up. If anything, I am happier with his hitting than his base stealing so far this year no doubt due to my expectations than anything.

    • It’s dangerous to do that with SBs because then you have to take the CSs out of his totals. Also, SBs, don’t move runners up, so they aren’t really as valuable over all as hitting a double or triple.

      • True. Good points. Just looking for analytics that translate Billy’s baserunning skills into the normal AVG/OBP/SLG conversation.

      • Agree completely and well put but the “error” factor has always intrigued me about this guy. This why I place such an extreme value on his contact rate (no K’s) than any other player on this team, at the very least; and the whole of MLB with few exceptions..

        • I think OBP and all the other derivative stats should include errors in it’s calculations. It is something that many stats people have been pushing for a long time, but have been stymied.

          B-Ham is an extreme example of someone who is unfairly treated under the current rules. His speed generates errors, He should get credit for them somewhere.

  9. I think it is safe to say for the first 6 weeks of baseball that BHam is NOT the problem with our offense on a daily basis. The Reds should be looking at 2 thru 8 before attempting to make any adjustments with Billy.

  10. Another thing that just occurred to me in terms of how different evaluating Hamilton’s value is going to be is the relative value of the triple out of the leadoff spot. Speed seems to be the number one factor in determining who hits triples. The conventional wisdom is that a triple is a double with a faster runner. That being said, it also stands to reason that triples are most valuable with no outs, because that gives you the most ways to score a runner from third. Leadoff hitters hit with no outs considerably more often than any other lineup spot, so maybe this is an argument for keeping him batting 1.

    • Right now, Billy is one of 16 MLB players with 3 triples. And, he’s only guaranteed to lead off the game with empty based once per game. After that, he isn’t necessarily a lead-off hitter more than anyone else. So we’d be banking on the number of times he hits a lead-off triple in the first inning of the game, or maybe once more later on with no out and bases empty. While he’s more likely to do it than anyone, those are some pretty slim percentages to play for against having a rock solid OBP out there getting on base.

      • Batting after a near certain out (pitcher’s spot), he will lead-off an inning more than anyone else regardless of him leading the game off. So yes, he is much more likely to lead off an inning more than anyone else.

        • Fair enough. Even with that, I don’t think the Reds should play for the triple as an offensive philosophy.

        • The triple shows up in both SLG% & wRC+, both of which are below average, it’s not (yet?) a frequent enough occurrence to matter much.

          This is one of those areas that really hurts Billy against the Shin-Soo Choo’s of the world. 1 HR is worth 1.25 triples.

  11. Really glad the Reds stuck with him in leadoff and didn’t start juggling him around the lineup. Sometimes with young guys, an ounce of patience is worth a pound of results.

    • Before we start patting everyone in the organization on the back, let’s keep in mind the Reds are 13th in runs scored in the National League and Billy Hamilton’s wRC+ is just 86. It’s amazing how low the bar has become that Hamilton’s performance so far would be applauded as a success for a lead-off hitter or the organization. Besides, he might have hit better batting lower in the lineup.

      • I’m normally on your side of the BHam experiment argument, Steve. And I do agree that keeping him as a leadoff hitter is still not the place for him to be developing… but the fact that he’s contributing to this offense in a meaningful way (FanGraphs WAR ranking has him only behind: Frazier, Mesoraco, Votto, and Phillips for this season) is a victory for the front office.

        Does his OBP need to come up? YES. Profoundly yes.
        Does his plate discipline need significant improvement? YES.

        However, the fact that they’ve pulled him up when many of us said was way before he was ready and he’s still contributing positive WAR deserves some recognition. If he maintains this pace, he will be a ~3.6 WAR player this season. That’s essentially a 2012 Brandon Phillips or a 2013 Jay Bruce.

        Is he that good? Probably not, but so far his performance is hinting that his ceiling may be that high.

        • Hamilton’s offensive fWAR is 0.0 – zero point zero.

          WAR measures defense too, and that’s where his contribution in fWAR comes from. I’m pretty sure he doesn’t need to hit leadoff for that.

          It appears Hamilton is going to be an above-average CF, but it’s too early to put any stock in the defensive metrics (bWAR on defense has him at 0.0).

        • That’s my point though. He’s not an all-star… but he is a league average hitter so far. He doesn’t need to be leading off, but he is contributing. He’s this year’s, last year’s Cozart. If you throw him into the 7 slot in the lineup, I wouldn’t complain a bit about him being on this team. That’s leaps and bounds from my expectations, which were that he would fall apart in the first month, his speed wouldn’t play, and the Reds were going to be too sheepish to send him down because, “he’s our main attraction at “The Castellini & Jockety Fun Show.”

          He’s contributing on defense, he isn’t hampering the team compared to anyone they could replace him with on offense. You could make the argument that they should have brought in a big name or at least an underrated semi-veteran, but at that point you’re arguing woulda, coulda’s from 4 months ago. Given the roster the Red’s have, and the other holes *cough*Ludwick*cough*Cozart*cough* in their lineup, BHam seems like a real major leaguer.

      • Steve, are you implying that the Reds haven’t scored many runs due to bHam hitting leadoff? What about Bruce playing injured, BP getting off to a slow start, Mez getting nicked up?

        Plus, offenses still aren’t where they should be in the rankings. Does anyone really believe the Cubs have a better offense than St. Louis? They have scored more runs so far. Is Miami the 2nd best offense in the NL? Sure looks like it… At the moment. Is Atlanta the worst offense in the NL? They are 5 runs removed from last place.

        Patience. At this point, some teams have been lucky while others have not. The beauty of a 162 game season is, when it’s all over, there is little doubt the results are about what they should be. I would still wager the top 6 offenses in the NL will be some combination of Colorado, LA, St. Louis, Atlanta, Milwaukee and Cincinnati.

        But for all the problems the Reds’ offense has had, Billy Hamilton is pretty low on that list, if he’s even on that list at all.

        • No one player is responsible for the Reds’ offensive woes but he is definitely in the mix.

          If you redacted everyone’s names and showed the list to an analyst, yeah, he’s probably going to identify the leadoff hitter with a sub-0.300 OBP and an 86 wRC+ as an issue. He’s also going to point to the middle infielders and the corner OFs as issues, There is a cumulative effect to Hamilton, Cozart, Heisey, and BP being all together in the same lineup.

        • Billy Hamilton is not the sole cause of the Reds offensive woes (straw person accusation) or even the most significant cause. There are many factors contributing to that, including the ones you mention.

          But a lead-off hitter with an wRC+ of 86 is definitely on the list. How could it not be? 100 is average. Lead-off hitters – who get the most at bats on your team – should be above average. That’s a situation for the Reds that shouldn’t be applauded. Again, look how low we’ve apparently lowered the bar.

          It would have been my preference to treat him like countless managers have treated countless rookies and eased him past those early jitters, which are now admitted to by Hamilton and apparently also his choir as a way to call for their expungement. He could have done all this fast learning (yet, he’s reached the major leagues and can’t bunt well, has no one ever taught him how to bunt?) with less pressure hitting lower in the order. He may have developed faster that way.

        • Hamilton choir (April): Billy doesn’t feel pressure, he can bat lead-off, don’t even suggest it will affect his performance

          Hamilton choir (May): Billy felt so much pressure early on that it affected his game so profoundly we shouldn’t even consider those games when judging his performance

        • I don’t agree on Milwaukee and with the way the Marlins play at home, they could sneak in there. The Brewers rely on guys who have a history of not making it through full seasons. This has been a problem for the Reds as well so I could be wrong. Atlanta will improve as they are transitioning away from Uggla. Possibly, the Giants should be in there as contenders.

  12. About BHam, BHam had a good spring. What many are forgetting was that after they shutdown spring training they had two exhibition games. One was rained out in Pensacola and the one in Louisville was called at about 6 innings. There were several days of down time which allowed BHam to build up alot of anxiety for Opening Day and the opening week. Check out this BHam comment in the Louisville Courrier Journal back on March 30. “It still hasn’t hit me that it will be opening day in the big leagues,” Hamilton said. “Opening day in the minor leagues is OK. I feel like on Monday it will really hit me.”
    It hit him alright, like a ton of bricks. He was about as nervous as a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs. He pressed and it manifested. Price sat him down after a week of pressing, calmed him down and got his head straight. BHam has been fine ever since. He’ll continue to improve. With the exception of that first week, what we’ve seen from BHam in the spring and so far this season is what we should expect.
    No worries with BHam.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s