Maybe I need to start collecting dues for the Billy Hamilton Fan Club. The more I look at this guy, the more I think he’s going to develop into some version of the player we’ve been hoping for.

Maybe he won’t be as good as was predicted during the early excitement of his big league debut. Perhaps I’m getting too excited over small sample sizes. I’ll concede either of those could be true. But some of the early returns this year are very interesting.

If you haven’t seen the piece I wrote about Hamilton for Cincinnati Magazine yesterday, go take a look at it.

The short version is this:

1. Billy Hamilton is already one of the greatest defensive center fielders on planet earth;
2. He’s also the best baserunner in the game;
3. He’s still very young, and won’t hit his peak for at least a couple more years; and
4. I think we’re seeing real improvement in Hamilton’s approach and production at the plate.

The reasons that I’m seeing such improvement, at least in the short term, are two-fold. First, Hamilton’s hitting the ball on the ground at a career-high rate, 48.6% of the time. If you look at his progression, Hamilton has improved his ground ball rate every single year of his career, and he’s made a pretty big jump this year.

Everyone has always known that Hamilton hitting the ball on the ground is the key. He can’t outrun a pop up. So this is a good development, right?

The other reason I was optimistic in that Cincinnati Magazine piece is that Billy is hitting his grounders much harder than he ever has. Here’s how I put it over there (and please click on that link and go read the piece, if only to make me happy…because my happiness is the most important thing to you, right?):

Billy is hitting his grounders much harder than he ever has before; 17.4% of Hamilton’s grounders are measured “hard-hit,” compared to last year’s 12.8%.

So he’s hitting more ground balls and hitting more of those ground balls hard. That’s manifesting itself in more balls getting through the infield, which means more chances for Hamilton to reach base. And when Hamilton reaches base, he’s an elite player. Sure, there are small sample size caveats that we should consider, since we’re only 200+ plate appearances into the 2016 season. But the early returns are very good.

I’m not kidding about the small sample size thing. Billy could completely regress and end up with a second straight poor season at the plate.

As I looked at Hamilton’s numbers even more deeply last night, however, I actually became even more optimistic that these are real gains. First of all, it’s not just that Hamilton is hitting more ground balls this year. He’s also hitting line drives at a career-high rate. The flip side of that is that Hamilton is hitting far fewer fly balls than he ever has: 29.3% compared to 37.8% last year and 37.3% in 2014. That’s a pretty significant difference, and if it holds up, it’s a big data point for the claim that Hamilton is improving as a hitter.

There’s something else that I gives me reason for optimism. My good friend — and constant companion on the Redleg Nation Radio podcast — Bill expressed a little skepticism about whether Hamilton will ever hit consistently. I can’t argue with that skepticism. Billy is a below-average hitter this year, and he was one of the worst in the league last year.

But I’m trying to wear rose-colored glasses, so I took a second look. Whereupon I found something interesting. Take a look at Hamilton’s BABIP (batting average on balls in play) for his career, both minors and majors:

2016: .322 (MLB)
2015: .264 (MLB)
2014: .304 (MLB)
2013: .310 (AAA)
2012: .371 (AA)
2012. .404 (A+)
2011: .360 (A)
2010: .388 (Rookie)

One of those years is not like the others. I’m not here to tell you that this is the only reason Hamilton regressed in his second full season in the big leagues, but it seems interesting to me that Hamilton just happened to have a BABIP that was forty percentage points lower than anything he’s ever experienced. It’s not conclusive, certainly, but it makes me think that the gains we’re seeing from Hamilton this year might be real.

And here’s where I remind you that Billy is just 25, and should be expected to keep improving for at least the next couple of years. It’s not a complete stretch to see Hamilton being something close to a roughly league-average hitter by 2018, when he’s 27.

And if Billy Hamilton is a league-average hitter, Billy Hamilton is the best center fielder in the league.

Blame Chad for creating this mess.

Chad launched Redleg Nation in February 2005, and has been writing about the Reds ever since. His first book, “The Big 50: The Men and Moments That Made the Cincinnati Reds” is now available in bookstores and online, at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and wherever fine books are sold. You can also find Chad’s musings about the Cincinnati Reds in the pages of Cincinnati Magazine.

Join the conversation! 17 Comments

  1. Billy it’s better righthand

    • Don’t really know…no numbers on hitting right handed against right-handed pitchers.

  2. “Billy Hamilton will be an All-Star within two years”

    There is a real chance that Hamilton has turned the corner and will become a real offensive threat and weapon. I hope he does. I see the same possibilities as you and for the same reasons. The home run shot last night didn’t hurt a bit. If Hamilton continues to establish a hard-hitting, line drive batting profile, defenses and pitchers will need to start respecting him as a hitter. Pitchers will not be able to keep throwing fat strikes with the expectation that Hamilton will whiff or make weak contact for easy outs, so the BB% will increase. Infielders will not be able to play at little league depth so Hamilton’s speed will start producing more infield hits from his ground balls.

    The unfortunate downside of your prognostication is the reality of another WJ fiasco of roster management and another knot in WJ’s legacy as a GM. Hamilton is just now learning how to hit and the Reds have wasted more than 2 years of Hamilton’s service time by promoting him to the major league level before he was ready. If you are correct and Hamilton does indeed become an all star within two years, he will also become a FA in a year after an all star and the Reds will lose out on Hamilton’s most productive seasons due to WJ’s poor roster management.

    • For this exact reason, I have been wondering if trying to get Hamilton to sign a reasonable extension would be a good move.
      He has been worth 7.2 WAR per Fangraphs in 342 major league games played since he was called up in late 2013. Even if we assume he makes no improvement to his game, and only plays 140 games per year because of some injuries. That is still near 3 WAR each year. If 1 WAR is worth about $8 million on the open market then Billy in his current form is worth around $24 million per year.
      Billy is only 25 years old, so a 5 year contract, buying out his arbitration years and 2 free agent years, would still only take him to 30 years old. This would give the Reds some cost certainty through his arbitration plus 2 of his free agent years and still give Billy a chance for 1 big free agent contract in 2022. I don’t know what it would take, dollar wise, to get this deal done but I think it could work out for both player and team.

      • It’s absolutely something the Reds should explore at some point. Especially if the gains we’re seeing this year turn out to be real (as I’m guessing that they are).

        • Working out a long term contract this offseason instead of going to arbitration would seem like a logical time to get something done.

        • The other side is that running speed is an early career tool. Running does not peak at 27-29 like (power) hitting does. It peaks way earlier. By the time Billy can hit his weight, he will likely no longer be elite speed.

      • Excellent point about extending Billy. It certainly shouldn’t be a bank breaker.

  3. I think you are right on BHam. He looks better at the plate this year. Noticeably better approach. Even though he was rehabbing his shoulder after surgery this winter, he still worked on hitting with Billy Hatcher. We might be seeing the results of that tutoring. Remember, before the 2015 season BHam had Delino DeShields working with him the prior winter. That was a disaster. The proof is in the pudding, Hatcher seems the better tutor.
    An extension for BHam? If he seems destined for even better days, I’d say yes. Maybe something between the Jay Bruce 6 yr./$51M deal and Johnny Cueto’s 4 yr/$27M deal that both signed before the 2011 season might be a reasonable neighborhood.

    • I’m with you WV. Of course signing an extension would guarantee that he would get injured and lose 2 years of production. (Votto, Homer, Mez, Bruce, Cueto, Marshall…ect) It seems to be some kind of Red’s Curse

  4. If Billy can turn into just a league average hitter his value will go through the roof.

  5. I think the optimism on Billy doing what Cozart did should be muted some. Cozart has come back to earth rather fast recently. Billy had a reasonably good average at this time in each of the last 2 years, then tanked.

    • Billy is hitting almost exactly the same as he did in 2014. Scary similar. wRC+ of 78.

      • Indeed. But how he’s getting those hitting numbers is somewhat different (i.e., more grounders, fewer fly balls). That’s why I’m optimistic.

        But I could easily be wrong. We will have learned a lot more about Billy Hamilton by the end of this season.

  6. I share your optimism Chad. While his offense is still somewhat weak, he is trending in the right direction. In addition the the GB% you stated, he just appears to have a better approach at the plate so far this year. Eye tests and SS apply, but I’ve noticed the slap hits to left.

    He could be compared to Dee Gordon (PED’s aside) who struggled early but then hit better as he matured. It would serve as a pretty good ceiling if he could approach Dee’s batting numbers.

  7. I don’t think Billy Hamilton will ever make an all-star team. There aren’t enough Reds voters to start him and his offensive numbers will never pop to where he’s selected based on his bat. There’s a chance a Joe Maddonn picks him as a late game base running weapon so I won’t say never. But that doesn’t mean he can’t be a top center fielder. He’s there defensively. And his offense does appear to be slowly improving. If this isn’t a small sample size aberration Chad then I agree with your optimism, and I would then fall in the “extend Billy” camp. I’ll have to disagree with Dr. Cossack for once. I don’t think Hamilton could have learned the skills he seems to be developing at the plate in the minors. The level of scouting information and preparation and the ability of pitchers to work to the scouting reports is vastly different in the majors than in AAA. I simply don’t think certain skills CAN be learned in the minors. So those two years are not a service clock waste but a necessary evil. Count me fine with Hamilton’s development and encouraged by his future. And on a related note, let Reed learn at the major league level. It’s not like it will cost the Reds a playoff spot and he’s already proved he can get AAA hitters out. He needs to take his lumps, perfect his delivery and control, learn to prepare for teams and match ups with the Reds. He’ll be fine.

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About Chad Dotson

Blame Chad for creating this mess. Chad launched Redleg Nation in February 2005, and has been writing about the Reds ever since. His first book, "The Big 50: The Men and Moments That Made the Cincinnati Reds" is now available in bookstores and online, at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and wherever fine books are sold. You can also find Chad's musings about the Cincinnati Reds in the pages of Cincinnati Magazine.

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