Recently, I started re-reading The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach. In some abstract way, the impetus behind that decision was that I wanted to start writing a baseball novel and how else to pump up your ambition than to read the best baseball novel of all time? (Yes, I will consider The Natural an acceptable answer as well.) Instead, I have found myself mostly thinking about Billy Hamilton, the very real, non-fiction centerfielder for the Cincinnati Reds, and not about fictional characters of my own device.
To offer a refresher: In The Art of Fielding, Henry Skrimshander is an otherworldly defensive shortstop, anticipating where balls will end up before the bat has even made contact. He can’t hit when Westish College catcher Mike Schwartz first sees him, but who cares, he’s a savant. After two years with a college weight room and six chapters into the book, Henry is suddenly hitting .358 and has made himself a bonafide D3 prospect.
Oh, if only it were that easy for Billy Hamilton.
Nick Kirby wrote extensively about Billy earlier this week, touching on his offense, his defense, and his baserunning value, but I just want to dive into the defense. Specifically, does the art of fielding matter much at all?
According to Fangraphs, Billy Hamilton has been worth 5 Defensive Runs Saved this season with a 7.4 UZR/150. Among all Major League outfielders, Billy is tied for 16th for DRS and in 13th for UZR/150. Both strong and good numbers, but not nearly as strong and good as Mookie Betts (19/19.9) or JaCoby Jones (21/14.5) or Lorenzo Cain (17/10.9). All three of those guys also have the added benefit of being decent to good hitters.
These are only statistics from part of one season, and defensive statistics are unreliable. If you take the longview, Billy is ninth for DRS and fourth for UZR/150 among outfielders since 2015. He’s a good defender! Just not the best, sadly.
Now that we can move past the fallacy that Billy is some unparalleled superman in centerfield, there’s one argument that keeps cropping up for why he should continue taking starts from more accomplished hitters. Namely, the Reds’ young pitchers are prone to giving up lots of contact and Billy negates some fraction, presumably a large fraction, of that contact. (This sentence will hereafter be called our “test statement.”)
To test if that statement holds its water, let’s break out some old-fashioned defensive range stats. And yes by old-fashioned I mean created in 2007. Ancient, basically.
BIZ, RZR, and OOZ — rudimentary measures that seek to quantify a player’s range. UZR and UZR/150 are both better at this particular task, but the calculations behind them confound me so to illustrate this point, I’ll use statistics I can explain. Also, UZR and UZR/150 include arm strength calculations, which I believe falls outside the realm of our test statement. If Billy is negating some contact the Reds’ pitching is giving up, he’s doing so by turning hits into outs off the bat.
Let’s start with BIZ, Balls in Zone. Every fielder has a zone on the field, in which their position is expected to field the ball 50 percent of the time. If a ball is in a player’s zone, he should theoretically be the one fielding it, if the ball is within his physical limitations.
Here are some BIZ ratings for a cherry-picked set of five centerfielders:
Billy has the most Balls in Zone of the five! In fact, Billy has the most Balls in Zone of all MLB outfielders! Ender Inciarte and Adam Jones are tied for second for clarity, with Herrara and Cain coming much further down on the leaderboard.
The argument that Billy needs to be in centerfield because the awful Reds’ pitching leads to more fielding opportunities does have credibility then. It took Inciarte nearly 100 additional innings to have as many balls hit his way and Adam Jones, bless his soul, plays for the Orioles, who are in a similar boat as the Reds. In terms of progress of testing our statement’s validity, the first part rings true. The young Reds’ pitching does indeed give up more contact in Billy’s general direction.
Now, RZR — Revised Zone Rating. This number takes a player’s BIZ and makes it the denominator with the number of plays made on those Balls in Zone as the numerator. Here’s how our five centerfielders rank:
Billy comes in third across this particular set. Lorenzo Cain — the aforementioned savvy-hitting and savvy-fielding centerfielder — is 17th across all MLB outfielders in RZR, with Ender Inciarte at sixth. Billy ranks 25th, a good ways down the list.
Now is as good a time as any to explain why I picked each of these centerfielders for inclusion, absent reasoning for Billy of course. Lorenzo, by virtue of his greatness in more advanced stats, was included to compare Billy to the elite class of defender. Ender Inciarte was included because he represents the closest statistical equal to Billy this season, with a 15 DRS and 6.8 UZR/150. Adam Jones and Odubel Herrera were both included because, the former for his age and the latter for his inability, they are horrible, horrible centerfielders. They are the fifth and seventh worst MLB outfielders by UZR/150, respectively.
The fraction of the contact given up by the Reds’ pitching staff that Billy negates then falls well short of his best comparison (Inciarte), noticeably short of the paradigm (Cain), and a good deal above the basement, which is a relief. By this measure, Billy is an above-average centerfielder, but not a great one.
Lastly, OOZ — Out of Zone Plays Made, and conversely, Billy’s last gasp. These are balls where a fielder makes a play out of his designated zone. They don’t factor into RZR at all, but when viewed in addition, they can indicate which fielders have exceptional range to all fields. Our contenders:
To no one’s surprise, Adam Jones’ old legs can’t quite carry him out of centerfield anymore. Lorenzo Cain has also done serviceably ranging out of his position, but not quite to the elite level his other numbers would indicate.
As for the other three, Billy comes in third, behind one of the worst centerfielders in the sport and still well behind his contemporary. As I said earlier in the season, anything the Reds can do, the Braves can do better because it seems the Reds would be better off playing Ender Inciarte behind their young pitching than they are Billy Hamilton.
If you take it back to 2017, Billy Hamilton (9 DRS, 11.2 UZR/150) outperforms Ender Inciarte (5 DRS, 2.7 UZR/150) in almost every category, except OOZ where Billy gets spanked again, 71 to 129. Lorenzo Cain had 136 OOZ plays last season, which led the league, but his DRS lagged at 5 as well.
What I’m saying here is, defensive numbers vary season to season. In 2017, Billy Hamilton was a superb centerfielder, much better than he has been this year. He also had fewer BIZ last season with only 243 over the full year. But even with all that variance and the possibility of Billy’s defense to bounce back…
Billy’s defense doesn’t matter to the Reds in 2019 for three reasons:
- It’s not as irreplaceable as it’s made out to be. Ender Inciarte’s 86 wRC+ is 14 percent below average and still, it’s 18 percentage points higher than Billy’s 68 wRC+ mark! Inciarte has provided better defense this year and slightly lesser defense last year than Billy, while somewhat contributing to the lineup. Billy is not head and shoulders above the rest of the league; he’s maybe a forehead at best.
- For all that’s made of the awful Reds’ pitching and the importance of Billy to negate it, Billy doesn’t really negate it at all. Inciarte has made more plays on less opportunities and ranged far outside to create more opportunities for himself. For every big ticket highlight reel Billy finds himself on, he’s still failing to make a fair number of plays he could.
- Free agency pending, the pitching should be better making point two moot. Banking on something as volatile as defense to bail out pitching instead of just getting better pitching is the worst strategic idea I’ve heard since marching on Stalingrad in the winter. Billy could be 2017 Billy or 2018 Billy or some new defensive version of Billy in 2019. None of those alternate Billy universes will make him a) a better hitter or b) really help the pitchers in any meaningful way that some other schmuck named Phil Ervin couldn’t! (For reference, Ervin has a .947 RZR with 26 OOZ so far. His negative marks for DRS and UZR/150 come from his lacking arm and not his range.)
The Reds do not need Billy Hamilton in center to help their young pitchers because the art of fielding truly does not matter as much as scoring runs does. Never forget that Henry Skrimshander only became a legit prospect when he started hitting like Ted Williams. Defensive wizardry means nothing without a bat to back it up, but it means even less when it’s more smoke, mirrors, and confirmation bias than real magic.