Billy Hamilton is a Problem.

Billy_Hamilton_2013First off, he’s the second major league ballplayer named Billy Hamilton. Guys with the same name give guys like me, who gamely but crudely run their databases as spreadsheets, fits. I hate you Alex Gonzalez, and you Alex Gonzalez, and I’m not forgetting you, Alex Gonzalez.

Differentiating is always a problem, though less so when they’ve played more than 100 years apart.

It is also a problem that the two Billy Hamilton’s profile similarly. Both are wicked fast and steal lots of bases. The 19th Century Billy Hamilton proved through a distinguished career that he was more than a one-trick pony. He hit the ball, too, and even made some noise with some homers. He was first player to lead off a game with a homer and then end it with a walkoff homer, in 1892. Only four players have done that since, and Ricky Henderson was not one of them, which surprises me.

It remains to be seen if the modern Billy Hamilton has enough bat to get his legs truly involved in the Reds’ offense, which is why I bring this up now. With a clear shot at a job with the Reds this year, following the departure of Shin-Soo Choo, we have to answer the serious question about how much he’s going to play, and what he’ll do while he’s out there. There’s no doubt that as a part-time player, a pinch hitter, pinch runner and defensive replacement, as he showed last September, he can steal a lot of bases. But can he be more than that?

Let’s start with defense. Hamilton reportedly spent last season adjusting to playing center field (he’d been a shortstop before that), the better to be ready for early promotion to the major leagues. While there have been questions about the routes he runs and his polish out there, there seems to be a rough consensus that his speedy legs will help him make up for whatever mistakes he makes, and that his gameness and dedication will help him learn to do things right eventually.

So, it sound like his defense will not prove a liability, or at least not enough of one at first to cost him playing time if he can contribute on offense.

What about his speed? There isn’t any need to belabor this. He’s shown remarkable speed throughout his rise through the minor leagues, which has led to staggering the first-Hamiltonian stolen base numbers. And more importantly for our purposes, he has not seen any decline in stolen base success rate as he’s advanced up the minor league chain.

Forgive me for saying the obvious, but all indications are he’ll steal plenty of bases while in the majors comparative to opportunities.

What sort of hitter will he be in the majors? There are a few moving parts here. Let’s look at them individually.

He has no power. Like many speedy hitters, he lays bat on ball and runs. That’s a simple formula for success if you make enough contact and hit the ball hard enough. But it is a thin line between hard enough and not.

Will he make contact? I don’t think we’re able to determine whether any player might find some way to improve. So Hamilton might, but his Contact rate last year in Triple-A was 77 percent, which might be good enough if he can sustain it in the majors for a .265 batting average. If he can hit the ball hard enough enough of the time.

The problem here is that even if he makes contact, if he can’t bust the ball out of the infield he’s not going to get on base enough to take advantage of his speed.

Will he walk? At the lower levels in the minors he walked a decent amount, which helped him get on base, but last year that number dropped to 6.9 percent, which isn’t terrible, but is likely to drop at the major league level unless he figures out how to improve.

And there is another problem. If he’s going to aggressively pursue contact as a hitter, he’s only going to get deep enough into the count if he’s either lighting things up and pitchers nibble, or if the pitcher has no control. The result is, whether he’s succeeding or failing, his walk rate should go down this year, putting upward pressure on hitting the ball hard (or soft) enough to get the slap hits that he’s going to need to succeed.

What about the strikeouts? One discouraging thing about Hamilton’s performances in the minors is a strikeout rate that has hovered around 18 percent. No, it didn’t get worse in Triple-A last year, which is good, but it is potentially problematic facing big league pitchers. If he doesn’t make solid enough contact early in the count he’s going to be vulnerable to falling behind. A similar player who never really succeeded in the majors, Joey Gathright, didn’t strike out nearly as much as Hamilton has in the minors. Again, history isn’t necessarily destiny, but he’s going to have to improve here not to flame.

Can he bunt? Scouting reports don’t reflect well on his abilities to bunt, and the Reds have said he’s going to work hard on that leading into this season. So he’s going to get plenty of practice. Given his rep as a hard worker, improvement is certainly possible, which will definitely help his chances.

So this all comes down to role and at bats. The player we see Hamilton compared to most is Vince Coleman, who was able to use the fast carpet in St. Louis to launch a career that lasted 13 years and led to 752 stolen bases. Coleman’s slash lines for his career were .264/.324/.345, which seems possible for Hamilton. Especially since Hamilton could become a plus defender. Coleman was able to play despite being a poor defender.

So let’s say that if Hamilton hits like Vince he’ll get 600 AB hitting .264. Based on what he did in Triple-A last year and similar players have done as major leaguers, this scenario of success should put him on 90 runs, a few homers, 48 RBI, 40 bases on balls, and 71 stolen bases.

That’s worth $33 in 5×5. It represents the high end of batting average possibilities, I think, and if he hits .265 he should play just about every day.

But let’s say he hits .240. Presumably that would mean he wouldn’t play everyday all year. He would lose his job or evolve into a platoon role. He would still run, stealing 32 bases (or maybe more because of more chances to pinch run). If his other qualitatives remained constant relative to chances, he would earn $16. I’d say this is the midrange of all the possibilities for Hamilton this year.

What if he hit .240 and led off most every day? $27 earnings, which isn’t bad, and this could happen.

The other possibility worth considering is what happens if he pulls a Dee Gordon on us. Three years ago the speedy Gordon was called up and impressed everyone by hitting .304 and stealing 24 bases in 233 plate appearances. He seemed poised to become a baseball and a fantasy baseball star. But in 2012 the hits did not drop the way they had in 2011, and he posted numbers quite a bit like the .240 scenario for Hamilton above. We expected Gordon to get another chance last year, but instead he floundered in Albuquerque, and while he stole 10 bases in 108 PA with the big club, he hit just .234 and nobody expects him to be a regular any longer.

So, what if Hamilton hits .193 and is sent back to the minors after two months? He’ll still earn $8 and steal 20 bases (maybe more if they keep him up as a pinch runner for a while).

The bottom line here is that there are plenty of reasons to think that Hamilton may not live up to the hype this year. In fact, that seems to be the dominant fantasy narrative heading into camp this year. And that’s good smart analysis.

But the other smart analysis notes that he doesn’t have to be that much of a hitter to hold the job in Cincinnati (not much competition at this point to displace him) if he plays decent defense, and if he gets at bats he will get on some, and then he will run and have fantasy value. In the Guide I put him at $13, which seemed fair given the odds that he might wash out early on, but taken in the context of the above scenarios, I’m bumping him to $17. That probably isn’t going to get him, even then, but that’s a fair risk.

And if you construct your team with lots of power and want to make a risky play to add speed, going an extra dollar or two on Hamilton would be an interesting play. A high-risk $20 bid could actually pay off handsomely, possibly.

Span

I love Denard Span, out of proportion to his achievements.

Steve Gardner does a great job here of laying out why Span helps the Nats.

I think they made a good move.

Ask Rotoman! November 19, 2012

Rotoman:

Would you take Justin Upton and Miguel Sano for Jason Heyward in a long-term keeper league?

“Odd Future Value”

Dear ODV:

Let’s compare what Upton and Heyward have done when they were the same age:

At 21, Heyward earned $20, while Upton earned $6.

At 22, Heyward earned $7, while upton earned $29.

At 23, Heyward earned $28, while Upton earned $20.

Though their paths were different the results of their performances before they turned 24 years old are roughly similar. In his 24th year Upton earned $35. We have yet to see what will happen to Heyward, but no one would be surprised if he had a big year this year.

So, you’re looking at two young players of comparable talents. Heyward appears to have a little more power, Upton a better chance to hit for average, but when discussing future value here I think it’s fair to say that Upton is a bit more established because he’s been around longer, but that has also served to show some of the flaws in his game. Because Heyward is two years younger I’d give him the edge in a head to head comparison. But there is, of course, another body involved.

Miguel Sano is a young power-hitting prospect for the Twins who spent all of 2012 in Low-A, hitting for power, drawing walks and striking out a ton. He’s considered one of the top hitting prospects in the game, but he has a long way to go before he reaches the major leagues. He isn’t helped by the fact that he’s a third baseman who doesn’t play his position all that well.

I don’t see a huge difference between Heyward and Upton over the next few years, but Heyward’s long-term prospects are better. Sano is considered a top prospect, but he’s likely three years away, and it is prudent to notice the flaws of youngsters playing in Low-A, not because they can’t overcome them, but because they often don’t.

If your league has so many long-term keepers that there is significant value in having guys like Sano to hold onto, trading Heyward for Upton and Sano makes sense. But I think I’d prefer to have Heyward’s career going forward over Upton’s.

Sincerely,
Rotoman

Dmitri Young Retires.

The second gig I had in this fantasy baseball business was going to spring training for ESPN.com and visiting a different camp or game each day, reporting on what I saw that might be of interest to fantasy players and baseball fans. It was a great job even though the pay was crap and my 1987 Honda Accord never won the dirtiest car in the lot contest, though it was always a contender.

In honor of Dmitri Young’s retirement, here is a link to the column from the first day I saw him play. Back in those dark ages there weren’t exhaustive prospect lists, and one of the great joys of spring training was experiencing guys at play for the first time. Dmitri was certainly at play.

John Burnson’s The Graphical Player

I am a big fan of John Burnson’s Heater Magazine, a weekly pdf of baseball stats and analysis that makes the Sports Weakly baseball stats pages look like the Weekly Reader.

John sent me a copy of his annual book, The Graphical Player, in January, when it came out. I glanced at it then, but I was busy and it ended up on a shelf and I didn’t write about it then, which is too bad. Like Heater Magazine, the Graphical Player is crammed full of information. John is evolving a set of graphical rules for presenting data that makes it increasingly useful and understandable, and helps put a player’s skills in the context of his team and of the game as a whole.

This is not a book to use to look up a fact, though there are plenty of those in here. This is a book to browse through, to hunt for patterns in, to savor as a baseball fan the way a gourmand might taste a sauce. The good news, even at this somewhat frantic moment, is that much of the information in the Graphical Player will still pertain after the season starts. If you want to see if a player has historically been a slow starter, this book has graphs that show that he has been or hasn’t. Once you get used to the way the information is presented, this sort of research is a pleasure. The data and its context are presented as a picture.

Other features of note: John asked three writers who follow prospects to name their 60 top rookies for this year. He has compiled their rankings and notes for these 111 ROY-eligible players, with their stats (presented in a very useful format) for the last three years. This is a very helpful survey of this year’s top prospects, though it does omit my decidedly dark horse candidate Thomas Neale (who didn’t make The Guide, which shows just how dark a horse Neale is).

I also think, as documentary, that the team profile pages in the back of the book are full of useful information. They won’t surprise readers of Heater, but as with much of the book, once you get past the sheer data density you’ll be surprised how satisfying it is to see a chart of who played what position the most each month for each team. And the charts that compare each team’s production in different categories to the league average spark only ideas thus far, but clearly they help us understand what was going on. This is a new way to experience this data, and an invigorating one.

I’ve only scratched the surface of the types of information included in the Graphical Player. Some is of help analyzing baseball, while other stuff is geared totally to fantasy players. I don’t want to be grandiose, but it is an amazing accomplishment.

UPDATE: So I posted the above glowing review only to find out that the only copy of the book you can buy at Amazon currently costs $91. It’s worth every penny, of course, but that’s a little steep. It seems the Graphical Player is also sold out at Acta Publishing, the company that published it. Barnes and Noble doesn’t have it. I’ll tell you what, I’ll sell my copy to the first bidder for $75. And in the meantime, I hope this means that John Burnson sold out his print run and made a small fortune.

A Stupid Story by Rob Biertempfel

This story out of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review alleges that future Pirate Jose Tabata isn’t the age he says he is, backs that up with a vacuous quote from Pirates GM Neil Huntington saying that he’s heard rumors, and then says that there is no evidence that Tabata’s papers (which show that he is 21) are illegitimate.

I have no idea how old Jose Tabata is, but I would like some bit–a tiny little bit–of evidence from someone making allegations. Without it, I waste my time reading the allegations, and then I waste more time writing about the stupidity of publishing conjecture. Oh, I just did. Sorry.

The Fantasy Baseball Guide 2010 is OUT NOW!

The Fantasy Baseball Guide 2010 cover

On newstands everywhere!

An Interview with Oakland GM Billy Beane

John Sickels of Minor League Ball

I was working on Brett Wallace yesterday for the Guide (on sale in January!), and came to the conclusion that Wallace can hit and the A’s can use a third baseman, though he may not be that good a defensive player. Billy Beane agrees!

Nice interview by John, and Billy gives thoughtful answers. He just doesn’t trash anyone. Oh well.

Save $25 on First Pitch Arizona!

For what I think is the seventh time I’m heading out this November for Ron Shandler’s First Pitch Arizona symposium. This year’s dates are November 6-8, though I’m flying the fourth so I can get in a game on Thursday afternoon.

You cannot imagine how great it is to watch some of the best young talent around (this year we have Stephen Strasburg) in a near empty park, allowing you to sit just about anywhere you want (including behind home plate, where you can sometimes spy the radar readings of the ML scouts who are always in attendance.

Read more…