Through 2,220 innings, 1,087 plate appearances and 279 games played, there is enough information to formulate a trio of proclamations about Billy Hamilton, Cincinnati Reds center fielder:
*Billy Hamilton is a sublime defender.
*Billy Hamilton is an elite, perceptive base runner.
*Billy Hamilton is one of the worst hitters in the major leagues.
In an abstract sense, it’s quite striking that a player with so little time in the big leagues can offer two clear strengths and one explicit weakness. Let’s examine the three proclamations separately:
Billy Hamilton is a sublime defender
Hamilton, who began his pro career with the Reds as an 18-year-old after Cincinnati took him in the second round of the 2009 draft, spurned an offer to play football and baseball at Mississippi State in favor of taking up pro baseball. (Can you imagine Hamilton as a punt returner? Yeesh.) Through his first four minor league campaigns, Hamilton primarily played shortstop. However, the Reds officially moved to their touted prospect to center field in the 2012 Arizona Fall League.
“There are a lot of reasons,” former Reds vice president of scouting and player development Bill Bavasi told MLB.com in October 2012, speaking to Hamilton’s position change. “We have [Zack] Cozart. We have Didi [Gregorius]. If you watch Hamilton’s style of play, it’s a pounding style of play. It would be an easier position for his body to take along with the base stealing. Everything seems to work better.”
While Billy Hamilton the Shortstop may have been blocked by Cozart and Gregorious (now the Yankees shortstop), errors were a major issue anyway. Hamilton tallied 39 fielding miscues in 132 games at Low-A Dayton in 2011 and added 31 errors in 125 games between High-A Bakersfield and Double-A Pensacola in 2012. And with Brandon Phillips entrenched at second base, Hamilton — who played 55 games at second base in rookie ball in 2010 — wasn’t going to play there either.
Hamilton became a full-time center fielder during his lone season at Triple-A Louisville in 2013, and he’s been nothing short of sensational since taking over the same position for the Reds to begin the 2014 campaign. Among 128 qualified players from 2014-15, Hamilton ranks second to only shortstop Andrelton Simmons in Defensive Runs Above Average and is second to only Jason Heyward (primarily a right fielder) in Ultimate Zone Rating.
For those who prefer traditional metrics, over that same span (2,175 innings), Hamilton has a fielding percentage of .997 and has registered just two errors. Both of those marks are tied for the third-best in all of baseball over that period.
Billy Hamilton is an elite, perceptive base runner
From 2014-15, Hamilton topped all of baseball in BsR, Fangraphs’ all-encompassing base running statistic. In 2015, Hamilton turned in one of the best BsR seasons of all-time, and could have had a chance at the best single-season BsR in the history of the sport had he played closer to a full season and not been limited to 114 contests because of a shoulder injury.
As far as stealing bases, Hamilton showed profound improvement last summer, raising his successful base stealing rate from 71 percent in 2014 — which was below the league average of 73 percent — in 79 attempts to 88 percent in 65 attempts in 2015.
“It’s not that his speed is any better,” Reds manager Bryan Price said last April. He’s making better decisions on when to go and taken a lot of intelligence information we have and put it to work for him, being able to shut it down on a good slide-step. Most of the league is going to make a pretty good effort to slow him down by being quicker to the plate.”
Hamilton is simply an astute base runner. He swiped third base 16 times in 2015 (most in the majors) without getting caught, and occasionally his prowess on the base paths supplied the Reds with an easy run. Oh, and Hamilton has 126 stolen bases in 279 career games.
Billy Hamilton is one of the worst hitters in the major leagues
There’s no point in sugarcoating it: since he became a starter for the Reds in 2014, Hamilton has been one of the game’s worst hitters. Hamilton’s wRC+ of 67 puts him 114th among 117 hitters with at least 1,000 plate appearances over the past two seasons. After slashing .250/.292/.355 as a rookie, Hamilton regressed in 2015, slashing .226/.274/.289. Of the 176 hitters to accumulate at least 450 plate appearances in 2015, Hamilton’s wRC+ of 52 was the second-worst in all of baseball. Hamilton’s on-base percentage of .274 ranked 173rd out of 176 players with at least 450 plate appearances.
In order for Hamilton to improve as a hitter, he must first grasp his limitations. As his Hamilton’s frame (6-0, 160 pounds soaking wet) would indicate, he has trouble consistently hitting the ball hard.
Out of 124 qualified players from 2014-15, Hamilton ranked 122nd, only ahead of Ben Revere and Dee Gordon in FanGraphs’ measure of how often batters make hard contact. Funnel the year down to 2015 and switch the statistic to exit velocity, and things don’t get much rosier for Hamilton, who ranked dead last in average exit velocity among 221 players with at least 190 at-bats. (Hat tip to Baseball Savant.)
|Hard Hit % (2014-15)||Exit Velocity (2015)||wRC+ (2014-15)|
But how can it be that in terms of wRC+, Revere — who was one spot above Hamilton in the exit velocity rankings — hovers around league average and Gordon — who was just four spots above Revere — is above-average? The answer is fly ball and ground ball rate. Look at Revere, Gordon, and Hamilton’s fly ball (FB%), ground ball (GB%), and infield pop-up rates (IFFB%), as well as their batting average on balls in play (BABIP) from the same 2014-15 period.
Hamilton doesn’t need to look far for his blueprint to becoming a league average hitter. Revere and Gordon keep the ball out of the air and employ their legs to run out batted balls that average runners are thrown out on. Want more proof? Gordon led the majors with 57 infield hits last season. Second? Revere, with 41. Hamilton was way down the list with 28, only one ahead of Starlin Castro. Hamilton would torch Castro in a foot race, but Castro’s ground ball rate in 2015 (54.1 percent) was 12 percent higher than Hamilton’s.
Beyond improving on his ground ball rate, there is hope for Hamilton. For one, regardless of where his batted balls land, Hamilton should be due for some better luck. Hamilton’s BABIP crashed from .304 in 2014 (when his ground ball rate was worse (41.5 percent) than it was in 2015) to .264 in 2015. League average BABIP was .299 in 2015.
Hamilton also took more free passes last season, upping his walk rate from 5.6 percent to 6.5 percent. He also cut down on his strikeouts, slashing his K rate from 19.1 percent in 2014 to 16.5 percent in 2015. Hamilton could also refine his not-so-great bunting skills, but it’s worth noting that Hamilton’s 12 bunt hits in 2015 were just four behind Gordon’s MLB-best 16 bunt hits.
The Case for Continuing Patience
As early as midway through the 2014 season, it was plain to see that Hamilton would’ve been better served spending more time at Triple-A. Alas, the Reds were seemingly desperate to not only thrust Hamilton into a starting role (with no viable backup behind him), but also into the No. 1 spot in the lineup, a hell of a lot of pressure for a rookie to bear for a team that was a contender in the first half of the season. (The Reds were 51-44 and a game and a half out of first at the 2014 All-Star Break.) Hamilton was relied upon to be the team’s table-setter despite clearly being unready and unfit for the role.
Quick aside: A little more than a week after I wrote that Hamilton needed a break from the leadoff spot last May, the Reds removed Hamilton from his perch atop the lineup. In 2015, Hamilton actually logged more plate appearances batting ninth (226) than he did batting first (208) after 602 of his 611 plate appearances in 2014 came from the leadoff position. In 2015, Hamilton was bad in the leadoff spot (.230/.293/.342), but he was worse batting ninth (.223/.264/.248). I have no idea where the proper place in the lineup is to bat Hamilton.)
Again, this is what we know. Hamilton is a sublime defender, an elite, perceptive base runner, and is one of the worst hitters in the major leagues.
This is where it’s important to remember that Hamilton won’t turn 26 until September and is entering just his third full season in the majors. Hamilton need not look far to notice that a high draft pick like himself can take off as a hitter in his third full season in the big leagues, as Jay Bruce (1st round, 2005), Brandon Phillips (2nd round, 1999), and Joey Votto (2nd round, 2002) all achieved career-best slash lines and wRC+ totals in their third full turns as major leaguers.
So, it’s important for Hamilton to play every day so the Reds can continue their evaluation of their unique talent. And if Hamilton displays improvement as a hitter, the Reds would be wise to secure a team-friendly extension with Hamilton sooner rather than later. After the trades of Todd Frazier and Aroldis Chapman plus a handful of smaller moves, our own Steve Mancuso projects the Reds to be sitting on about a $30 million budget surplus. The Reds appear to be sitting out free agency, so locking up one of their own like Hamilton (who has already racked up 6.1 fWAR in 279 career games despite his struggles at the dish) through his arbitration years — which begin after the 2016 season — seems like a worthwhile endeavor.