How Good Could Billy Hamilton Be If He Could Hit?
You can't teach speed.
Sure, you can make someone marginally faster through proper training, but the true blazers out there, the fastest guys in any sport, were all born with it.
Cincinnati Reds center fielder Billy Hamilton is one of those guys blessed with a rare amount of speed that just does not come around all that often. That is why he is one of the more interesting players in baseball, capable of turning any walk or seeing-eye single through the hole into a double or triple.
It's game-changing speed, and it's a rare commodity. How rare? Hamilton stole four bases in a single game on Monday night, and going into Tuesday's action had 40 steals on the season. That is far and away the best of any player in baseball, with last year's stolen base champ, Miami's Dee Gordon, second with 26.
But that's not the crazy part. Hamilton has stolen 14 bases in the month of June. The Los Angeles Dodgers, as a team, have stolen 14 all season. Now, that says just as much about the Dodgers as it does Hamilton, but you get the point. Hamilton also has more steals than half of the teams in Major League Baseball.
Part of the issue is that the stolen base has been devalued in recent years, as the growth of sabermetrics has stressed the importance of not making outs. This anti-stolen base stance was crystallized in the movie Moneyball when Brad Pitt as Billy Beane told one of his players, "I pay you to get to first. I don't pay you to get thrown out at second."
Still, if you're really good at it, there's value in the steal. And Hamilton is extremely good at it. According to MLB, Hamilton is the first player to steal at least 40 bases in the team's first 75 games since Roger Cedeno stole 41 in 1990, and he's the first Reds player to steal at least 40 before the All-Star Break since Deion Sanders stole 41 in 1997.
He's also on pace to steal 96 bags, which would tie him for 10th all-time in a single season. And with a slight increase in his pace, he could become baseball's first 100-steal man since Vince Coleman stole 109 in 1987.
When Hamilton gets on, it gets crazy. But there's the problem. He doesn't get on nearly enough to be an effective lead-off hitter.
Coming into Tuesday night, Hamilton was hitting .224, with an on-base percentage of .273, and a slugging percentage of .295. His weighted on base average (wOBA) was .253 and his weighted runs created (wRC+) was a scant 55. Here is where Hamilton stands among lead-off hitters in the National League this season.
|Hamilton||162||23 (2)||.214 (40/41)||.277 (38/41)||.608 (39/41)||.270 (39/41)||66 (39/41)|
So despite being either the game's fastest, or second-fastest player, and despite running away with the stolen base crown this year, Hamilton has once again been one of the worst lead-off hitters in baseball. His offensive performance has been so lackluster that he has pretty much split time between batting first and batting ninth, after the pitcher. He has 162 plate appearances as the Reds' lead-off man, and 105 in the nine-hole, a spot that still allows him to take advantage of his speed.
The average on-base percentage around the league this year is .315. Among lead-off hitters it's .330. If Hamilton was even a .300 on-base guy, he could be approaching 50 or 55 steals right now.
While Hamilton's speed is his main weapon offensively, he also provides value to Cincinnati as a plus-defender at a premium position. He has only two defensive runs saved this year, but his ultimate zone rating (UZR) is second only to Tampa's Kevin Kiermaier, 12.4 runs better than a league average player at that position. His speed allows him to get to everything, and he usually makes the play when he gets there.
So even though he's essentially an easy out at the plate, his speed and defense is what has made him a 1.8 fWAR player so far this year, on pace for a 4.3 fWAR season. That would follow a 2014 campaign in which he hit .250/.292/.355 and put up an fWAR of 3.7.
Hamilton has value -- there's no doubt. But he'd be an unstoppable force if he could achieve a .300 on-base percentage that would still be considered below league average.
But given his past history, if wishes were horses then beggars would ride.