First 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.