2016 Reds

Is Billy Hamilton losing the CF job?

Since the start of the 2014 spring training, when Billy Hamilton was installed as the Reds center fielder and leadoff hitter, he has generated as much excitement and frustration as any player in a Cincinnati Reds uniform. Thanks to Hamilton’s 0-for-13 start at the plate in the team’s opening series against the Cardinals, Hamilton’s role as a polarizing figure for Reds fans was evident from the beginning. The ink on the scorecards from those games had barely dried when calls began to take pressure off Hamilton by moving him down in the lineup.

Diagnosing Billy Hamilton’s problems at the plate and prescribing remedies have become Cincinnati pastimes. As an example, writers here have offered a wide range of suggestions: glorified bench player, continued patience, bat seventh, bat eighthbat ninth.

Despite the wide variety of opinions swirling among Reds fans, the club itself was unwavering (another word for stubborn) in its commitment to playing Hamilton every day and batting him first. Even as the club pursued the 2014 post-season they used Hamilton in the leadoff spot in 99 percent of his plate appearances. It’s hard to believe now, but the Reds were 51-44 at the 2014 All-Star break, 1.5 games out of first place in the division. Over two seasons, the Reds gave Hamilton 800 plate appearances leading off.

Finally, on May 17, 2015, Bryan Price moved Hamilton to the bottom of the batting order after the center fielder had hit just .212/.264/.336 in the first 33 games. Batting ninth didn’t improve Hamilton’s numbers, but it did have the intended effect of reducing his plate appearances. He finished his second full season as one of the worst hitters in baseball.

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Billy Hamilton fits the traditional template of a leadoff hitter – speed, speed, speed – so well that the vision of him batting first will never drift far from those with old-school minds in the Reds organization. But Billy the Kid’s numbers in 2015 were so rock-bottom stark that Bryan Price put Hamilton on notice this spring that the center fielder would have to improve his on-base percentage before returning to the lead off spot.

Of course, the same question lingers as it has since the spring of 2014: If not Billy, then who?

The front office hasn’t provided a credible alternative to bat leadoff in more than two seasons, really since Shin-Soo Choo in 2013. For the moment, the Reds have stumbled into a suitable leadoff hitter. Zack Cozart, whose career OBP of .284 prior to this season should have disqualified him as a candidate to bat first, has surprised everyone with a wonderful start. Cozart has cut down his strikeouts and changed his approach, hitting more to the opposite field. Billy Hamilton isn’t replacing Zack Cozart at the top of the order any time soon.

But as the Reds head into the third week of the season, it’s not just Billy Hamilton’s position in the batting order that may be in jeopardy. Hamilton’s ongoing failure at the plate, for the first time in his career, might be costing him playing time.

On Saturday and Sunday, manager Bryan Price played Scott Schebler in center field. Schebler came to the Reds from the Dodgers organization as part of the Todd Frazier trade. While Schebler has above-average speed, he’s been used a corner outfielder through his career. Yet, for two games this weekend, he started ahead of Billy Hamilton.

It’s possible that Price is simply giving Hamilton extra rest because of the surgery the outfielder underwent on his right shoulder this offseason. Hamilton was back in center last night. The Reds say Hamilton is healthy and he did play three innings Saturday night as a defensive substitute. The surgery may be playing a less direct role, however. Full recovery from that type of surgery involves more than getting through the soreness and developing strength. It may take a hitter considerably longer to regain his swing mechanics.

Price said he started Schebler on Sunday in part because of Hamilton’s matchup history with Cardinals starter Michael Wacha. Price also referred to the Schebler-Duvall combination where there’s some history. (Interesting comment considering Scott Schebler and Adam Duvall haven’t even been on the same team before this season.) Either way, you have to wonder if “offensive considerations” will continue to cost Billy Hamilton starts.

It’s starting to feel like Adam Duvall has won more than a platoon-share of playing time in left field. If that’s the case and if the Reds want to get a good look at Schebler, it will have to come at Billy Hamilton’s expense.

Schebler vs. Hamilton

So what have the Reds seen that would make them begin to develop a preference for Scott Schebler over Billy Hamilton? They’ve each had fewer than three dozen plate appearances this year, so there’s nowhere near enough of a sample size to make sound judgments. But let’s try to put ourselves in Bryan Price’s cleats and check out the data we do have.

Looking at basic performance stats, it isn’t clear that Schebler has hit better than Hamilton.

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Measured by wRC+ (adjusted, weighted run creation) Hamilton has been more productive than Schebler. Hamilton has an edge in on-base percentage. That’s due to Hamilton’s surprising walk-rate (14.3%), which is more than double his 2015 rate (6.2%). Hamilton won’t sustain that rate. But he does appear to be working on plate discipline. “I’ve been to a few 3-2 counts,” Hamilton said. “That’s something that want to continue. I want to not chase bad pitches and I want to be able to work the count. The hits will fall.”

So what is Bryan Price seeing that leads him to start Scott Schebler over Billy Hamilton for offensive reasons? Most likely, Price is looking at how hard Schebler is hitting the ball.

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Schebler’s “hard-hit” rate puts him in the top twenty in the major leagues. Billy Hamilton’s number put him in the bottom five. Schebler’s average exit velocity of 90.32 mph places him in the upper third of major league hitters. Hamilton’s 82.04 puts him in the bottom 3% of major league hitters. That’s not a fluke in Hamilton’s case. Analysis of his batted balls reveals that Hamilton’s offensive shortcoming is not just that he hits the ball in the air too much, but that his hits – both in the air and on the ground – are too soft.

New data shows that average exit velocity (EV) is an important predictor of positive offensive performance. While it most directly affects isolated power, exit velocity even affects how pitchers approach hitters. EV is positively correlated with walk-rates because presumably pitchers are less afraid to pitch to soft hitters. So maybe that’s what Bryan Price is looking at in wanting more playing time for Scott Schebler.

Exploring > Clinging

The single most important takeaway from what we’ve seen so far in 2016 is that NEITHER Billy Hamilton or Scott Schebler has anywhere near the complete game of a major league center fielder. It’s still way too early to reach that conclusion, particularly for Schebler. But the headline worth highlighting, before we start parsing differences, is that we’re looking at the evil of two lessers.

It’s easy to feel we know Billy Hamilton. Even though he’s only played for two seasons, the consensus about what he offers has hardened. And, on balance, it adds up to slightly positive. The good aspects of his game – outfield range, base running – outweigh the bad – his hitting. Projections for Hamilton in 2016 were clustered right around 1.8 WAR (includes offense, defense and base running).

We watch Billy Hamilton save runs every night. In St. Louis, Hamilton stole a home run from the Cardinals (pictured below). On the other hand, Schebler has shown that he’s not a natural center fielder. On Saturday, he misplayed a fly ball leading to four unearned runs. He’ll get better with experience, but will never reach Billy Hamilton’s prowess in the field. It’s worth remembering, even with the Reds offense not yet clicking, that preventing runs is as important as producing runs.

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Hamilton robs Cardinals / Photo: FSO

But given the stated non-contending nature of this season — something we’re reminded every night by the bullpen — affording as many good players a thorough look as possible should be the primary goal. Giving Scott Schebler (and Adam Duvall) playing time ahead of Billy Hamilton and exploring creative ways of using Hamilton’s unique skill set is what the Reds need this season. It’s far preferable to clinging to Billy Hamilton’s 2o14-2015 role due to habit and obsolete blueprints. Remember that Dusty Baker used Billy Hamilton as a fourth outfielder, deployed as a pinch runner and defensive whiz, to great effect during Hamilton’s September call-up.

Are we seeing early signs that the Reds no longer regard Billy Hamilton as an everyday player?

Hard to say. Last weekend might have been a one-off occurrence. On the other hand, if Hamilton was losing his regular job, this is how it would look.

36 thoughts on “Is Billy Hamilton losing the CF job?

  1. I don’t get why the reds don’t send him down to AAA, scrap batting left handed and let him get his head straight. He’s proven that he is not a good switch hitter, they should try to maximize his value by seeing if he can be useful from just the right side of the plate. . .

    • Exactly. He looks much better hitting from his natural side. I have no idea why the Reds would try to force him to hit left handed when he already has trouble hitting right handed.

  2. I agree that we should give Schebler a good look. As this would cut into Hamilton’s playing time, I agree that he should be sent to AAA because he’s still young and needs as much playing time as possible to see if he can develop further. My sense is that he is not yet a finished product. Could be wrong but his potential warrants the investment that everyday playing time indicates. I’m thinking of other speedsters who took awhile to develop their OBP.

  3. What I don’t get about Billy is that in his one year in Louisville in 2013, his on-base was .308 over 123 games and 547 plate appearances. Does that show he was ready for the big club on an everyday basis? … OK, the Reds took a chance because they were clinging to contention hopes in 2014, but not now.

    If the Reds see Hamilton as part of their future, why not give him substantial time in AAA this season and see if he can improve a bit? If this season is not for contending, why not let Holt and Schebler and whoever else run around out there? Even if Billy’s numbers justify him starting over anybody else right now — and the walks are encouraging — that’s not the point. The point is to best prepare for when the Reds can contend. If AAA doesn’t help him enough offensively to regain a role as an everyday player, then the Reds would still have their late-innings defensive guy and pinch runner in a year or two if/when they are ready to contend. (And they will have saved some ‘service time’ along the way.)

    • I’m no scout and I’ve only seen Ervin play 5 times in person. But I don’t think there’s any way he’s a major league center fielder. And I’m skeptical of his bat as well. He’s patient enough, but when he does swing it is really stiff and he tries to yank everything down the left field line no matter where it is pitched. I think major league pitchers will just live around the outside edge of the plate and watch him roll over ground balls to third over and over.

  4. The Reds definitely should not give up on Billy Hamilton, but the idea of sending him to the minors doesn’t bother me. Billy is such an elite defender at a premium defensive position that even as one of the worst hitters in the league he was still an average major leaguer last year.

    I think Steve’s identification of the slow EV problem is key. The kid still weighs 160 lbs. Send him down to AAA and get him on a strength training program. Get 10+ pounds of muscle put on and get the percent of hard hit balls up, and then see if there’s a difference at the big league level.

  5. Billy needs to be sent back down to AAA to get some confidence and work on his game. Ditch the switch hitting approach and just focus on batting right handed.

    There’s not really any harm in doing this during a rebuilding year. We need him to produce beyond this year.

  6. You compared Schebler & Hamilton’s hitting stats and then said that Hamilton had a slight edge overall. Well, maybe I’m missing something but, Schebler doesn’t have nearly the same amount of time at the big league level that Hamilton has (maybe he does, I don’t know). But, IF he don’t, then maybe, just maybe, we should hold off on the comparisons between him & Hamilton until Schebler does. Then it would be fair. All signs point to Schebler being a better offensive force than Hamilton. Yeah, we may lose Hamilton’s speed and defense if Schebler becomes the starting CF’r, but I think his offensive potential makes him more valuable than Hamilton at this point. You talk about the defensive runs saved by Hamilton, but when we’re getting blown out (like we did in St.L.=14-3) it ain’t gonna make much difference (if any at all). So, it’s my opinion (and it’s just that-an opinion) that Hamilton’s lack of offense is ultimately hurting the Reds more than his speed & defense can make up for. Have we really become so spoiled on Hamilton’s speed & defense, that we honestly are gonna continue to put up with his lack of defense? I certainly would hope not, he’s only been with us for 2 yrs.

    • We have become accustomed to elite defense from the Reds, and I don’t think, small sample size acknowledged, that they look elite this year. BP is a year older, Frazier is gone and took his excellent glove with him (Suarez may just be dealing with a learning curve, but his fielding problems–to me–look like the ones he had at shortstop), and Bruce does not look elite, either, if he ever was. The team seems to have identified pitching as the cornerstone of the rebuild, and pitching absent good fielding doesn’t play well. I hope that Billy improves his on-base skills, but he’s too important in center to dismiss lightly.

  7. That was supposed to say “OFFENSE” at the end of my previous comment. Typo sorry.

  8. That was supposed to say “LACK OF OFFENSE” at the end of my previous comment. Typo sorry.

  9. “Most likely, Price is looking at how hard Schebler is hitting the ball.”

    I’m going to go waayyy out on a limb here and say that is NOT what Price was thinking.
    Billy got the night off Friday. He was not in the lineup Saturday because he was 1-20 something lifetime against Wacha. I know that is not the sample size that a lot of people here think should be relevant. But that is a good enough reason for me to sit the kid out.
    IMO, this is a make or break year for Billy. I wish they would let him bat right handed only though. I’m OK with him getting the bulk (6 games out of 7) of the playing time, to find out if he can show improvement this year.

  10. Until I see Tyler Holt (or some other true CF) start getting consistent playing time, I’m not going to believe Hamilton is in jeopardy this season.

    I don’t for a second think Billy Hamilton is losing the CF job to Scott Schebler. However, Schebler will probably eat some of Hamilton’s playing time, particularly in smaller ballparks like GABP where Hamilton’s defensive prowess is minimized.

    “Remember that Dusty Baker used Billy Hamilton as a fourth outfielder, deployed as a pinch runner and defensive whiz, to great effect during Hamilton’s September call-up.”

    If the Reds decide that this is the optimal way to use him, he is basically just a corvette sitting in their garage. They should trade him to a contender who can actually utilize his skill set.

  11. I agree the Reds should start looking at other players for center field. Maybe pickup a player in a Bruce trade? Hamilton is not a big league hitter at the moment, but if all things are equal let his defense win out. Schebler and Holt are not lighting it up at the plate.

  12. What is lost, here, is that I think the Reds’ best overall CF on the roster right now is neither of these guys, but instead Tyler Holt.

  13. I thought they sort of neutralized Duvall by batting him 7th in front of the pitcher when Billy is 9th. Didn’t they bat Schebler 8th the other day? That takes some patience and experience when you’ve always been a middle of the order hitter! He’s shown some obp skills in the minor so I think he could draw some walks or do some damage if they pitched to him but it takes time to learn how to deal with being pitched around with being walked….aka letting you get yourself out!

    • Good point. Tucker Barnhardt, for instance, is very good batting in front of the pitcher

  14. I’ve been in disagreement on the AAA to “work on his game” bit to this point. But with the caveats above about ditching the switch-hitting, I’d have to agree. I thought we had hope he’d drop that in the off-season … (heavy sigh)

    Still, haven’t I read that his defense alone produces positive WAR? Stop the switch-hitting and bat righty now!

  15. I see an interesting trend with respect to BH’s numbers from 2013 – 2016…realizing that 2013 and 2016 are small datasets:

    BA: (.368) (.250) (.226) (.167)
    BABIP: (.467) (.304) (.264) (.190)

    I have a theory that fits these numbers well (yeah, yeah, numbers should beget a theory…I”m doing it the other way around):

    1. Everyone is overly enamored with Billy’s speed and desperate to “fix” him so he can get on base more. Understandable.

    2. Beginning in mid-2014 (shortly after he peaked around .285 and was AllStar worthy), they begin to work on “fixing” him. I won’t try to quantify all the various advice/suggested adjustments the staff has given him, but let’s just say it looks something like this, by year from 2013 – 2016:

    Advice Given: (some) (more) (loads) (trending over the top)

    Hmm, perhaps BABIP and Advice Given (when excessive) are indirectly related.

    3. Because of Billy’s speed, I think there are so many more variables wrt him at the plate, attempting to get on base. Sure, there also are more opportunities, but for a new MLB-level batter the complications probably outweigh the benefits in the early years. Most batters of normal human speed are simply faced with learning how to hit. Not our speedster. Billy has many, many more possibilities, and therefore has many, many more variables to master…not just the skill itself, but also when to use it in a certain scenario. There in lies the excessive complexity of BH’s situation.

    So, perhaps I’ve over-simplified this. Yet, I believe when any person is inundated with advice and adjustments–especially if not a natural fit–the person is going to struggle. Soon, that person becomes overwhelmed and completely loses track of where they came from, where they’re at, and where they’re going. I think the result with BH becomes evident in how weak is contact is now…the weaker contact is having a direct impact on his BABIP.

    Here’s a new strategy: just leave Billy alone to figure it out himself…letting him seek advice at his own time.

    I do think he needs to bat consistently from the side he’s most comfortable, so perhaps scrap the switch-hitting. After that, let’s see what he can do with several weeks/months of doing his own thing. Let’s just let him find his groove. I think he will.

    In fact, I’m pretty psyched that he already has four doubles so far…in 33 ABs. Not sure where the doubles went last year, but his current 2016 projection equates to around 70 doubles, and that’s while batting under .200!

    Go Billy! Go Reds!

  16. Come on….If Hamilton sits, it should be for Peraza…not Schebler. Defense alone gives him the nod over Schebler…especially if Billy sticks to the “right” side. We’re wasting him right now…but that’s not surprising given Price’s insistence on trotting Hoover out game after game and several other questionable lineup/batting order/bullpen calls….God forgive me…I *gulp* miss *choke* Dusty Baker. We have TOO MUCH TALENT to finish lower than third…second if Finnegan/Stephenson/Straily aren’t mirage(s) and DeSchlafani/Bailey hurries back….Give us a chance, Brian Price !! GO REDS !!!!

  17. Have to agree that Hamilton needs to drop the switch hitting, the Reds are doing a real disservice to them selves and especially Billy. He needs to lift weights focusing on his wrists and forearms, and have him work one on one with Larkin on his hitting like when Larkin worked with Cozart last year. Also pop in some video of Dee Gordon and study it very closely, and model himself after him and see what he could be. Because that’s the potential.

  18. So, I’m not sure when it happened, but FG now has defense rolled into WAR calculations. Early season, they simply have the ‘positional adjustment’ because fielding metrics are so volatile with only a few dozen innings played. Their “Def” is basically UZR +/- Positional Adjustment.

    At any rate, currently Schebler ranks as the 6th worst CF in the majors with at least 20 innings in CF and the 6th worst LF in the majors with at least 20 innings played.

    Billy Hamilton, oddly enough, has been right around ‘average.’ Which seems utterly ridiculous given his several amazing plays so far, and only 1 so-so misplay.

    Duvall is the best in the majors in LF so far out of anyone who has played at least 70 innings.

    Suarez is 8th worst 3B, which doesn’t seem too bad considering how he’s looked. Apparently he has good range for a 3Bman. Nolan Arenado, who has been on full display this series, is in an easy1st.

    Phillips currently 8th best at 2B, due to above-average range scores.

    Votto currently 16th at 1B. To give you an idea… Chris Carter is 1st, and he’s a terrible 1Bman…or at least he has been in his career to date.

    Cozart is, somehow, currently 8th worst SS in MLB.

    Jay Bruce… well… he’s currently 2nd worst in MLB, ahead of only Mark Trumbo. Bruce receives negative marks in every facet of the defensive game so far. His overall WAR sits at -0.2, which is crazy since he’s actually had an above-average start at the plate.

    Gotta take these with a grain of salt since this early in the year, 1 good play and/or 1 bad play should radically alter the numbers.

  19. If not Hamilton, then who? Most anyone else. While speed is nice to have at the top of the lineup, one of the greatest hitters of all time, Uncle Pete, was rarely known for his speed. Hustle yes, but not speed. Griffey and Morgan were the speed guys.

    I said at the beginning of the season, Hamilton should be on the bench. Bring him in during situations where, for example:

    6th inning (or later), we need a run, we get a player on. Send in Hamilton to run. Let him cause some disruptions on the basepaths. Then, after that inning, he could even stay in to play CF.

    Bottom line, the more Hamilton hits, the worse position this team is to win a game, in my opinion. We didn’t need help with our defense. We needed help with our offense. And, Hamilton batting doesn’t do that.

    • Value is value. Hamilton is an above-average overall player. He helps the team win games, and unless you find someone who is better overall than Hamilton, benching him detracts from the team’s ability to win games.

      Grated, the team’s objective right now is NOT to maximize wins. It’s to evaluate talent for next year and beyond. So benching Hamilton (since we know what he is) is probably fine as long as we’re giving guys like Schebler/Holt/Rodrigeuz/whoever some playing time for evaluation.

      • Calling Hamilton “above average” right now I believe is stretching it. Defensely, yes. Speed, yes. But, consider the 5 tools:

        hitting – no
        hitting with power – no
        basepaths – yes
        fielding – yes
        throwing – no, Hamilton is known not to have a strong arm. Average arm maybe, but not strong.

        Going by the tools, he only has half of them at best. And, with the basepaths, when you can’t get on the basepaths, you can’t run the basepaths. So, his hitting is taking away his primary tool.

        • Hamilton doesn’t have a good arm? Outside of Kiermaier and Carlos Gomez name me a center fielder with a better one? I think there are a few others that are on the same level, but I can’t think of others who are better, just many who are much worse.

          Also, we do all realize that he’s coming off shoulder surgery and had very little spring training, right? He’s been looking much better at the plate the last few days. He’s 0 for his last 6, but he’s been hitting the ball hard in those at bats, including three solid line drives that he hit right at people. He also has only one strikeout in his last 16 at bats. Let’s see where he is in a month before we demote one of the three best defensive outfielders and the fastest baserunner in baseball.

        • Speed means nothing on the basepaths when you can’t get on the basepaths. Don’t get me wrong, I do hope Hamilton can turn it on. However, you say he’s had little time this year. This has been going on for the last two seasons plus this year. And, you are referring to his last 6 and 16 AB’s? You are reaching for a reason.

      • Above average defensively. If you rate him above average then you rate quite a few CF’s great. His offense is atrocious. And if you think offense isn’t needed then there are quite a bit of managers who would laugh you out of the room.

  20. As pointed out by the Phillies announcers Schebler swings under the pitches way to much. Once in awhile he will catch a hold of one. He needs to work on leveling it out.

  21. The Reds were able to turn Drew Stubbs into a 1-year Shin-Soo Choo rental, what could Billy Hamilton bring back in a trade at this point? Will his value ever be higher than it is right now? I would say it’s been trending downward, might be a good idea to deal him now? I don’t know, I’m honestly asking…could he bring back a prospect or two? I would argue that if the Reds are truly “all in” on this re-build/tool/factor, then moving Hamilton would make sense. As of right now, even considering is above average base running and defense, he’s turning into one of the top 5 most frustrating Reds players of all time, IMHO.

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