Rookie Hamilton experiment seems to be paying off for Reds
JUN 20, 2014 1:00p ET
Leading off the top of the first, Hamilton dropped a double into shallow left, and a few minutes later he stole third without a throw, putting him in position to score on a sac fly. He wouldn't reach base again, but in the bottom of the ninth, he did keep things tied, robbing Travis Snider of a possible walk-off, extra-base hit. On the catch, Hamilton managed to leave visible cleat marks on the side of the fence.
The Reds ultimately lost, but the game captured Hamilton in a nutshell. Early in the season, all the talk was about how Hamilton was embarrassing himself at the plate against big-league competition. Some points were arrived at too hastily. Some points were overlooked entirely.
Sure, at the start, Hamilton was dreadful. In the season's opener, he went 0 for 4 with four strikeouts. Below is a swing he actually attempted some weeks later.
On April 18, Hamilton was batting under .200. On April 28, his OPS was .532.
The hope was that Hamilton would reach base enough to take advantage of his running skills. Analysts subsequently debated whether Hamilton might be more useful as a full-time pinch runner.
Since the end of April, Hamilton's hit .298 with an OPS near.800. In June, he’s hitting .344. During an eight-day stretch this month, he hit three homers — his second, third and fourth of the season. Through Thursday, he’s hitting .277 for the season with 34 runs and 21 RBI.
Examining his entire big-league career, over just about 300 plate appearances, Hamilton has been a league-average hitter, seldom walking but making enough contact and finding enough power to be productive. For a few weeks, Hamilton was awful, but they were his first few weeks, and everyone deserves time to make adjustments.
The reality is that Hamilton is probably not a league-average hitter. The likelihood is that his current numbers are a bit over his head. But that can’t be known for sure, and Hamilton is one of those guys who get labeled a student of the game.
He's dedicated to self-improvement. It's evident that Hamilton has actual hitting ability, and it was never important for him to be good at the plate ... because Hamilton has other skills. While everyone knows about one of them, the other might also be outstanding.
Base running, of course, is where Hamilton's made his name. He's one of the most talented runners in the sport, and he's able to achieve his success despite everybody already being familiar with his skills and reputation. FanGraphs keeps track of a player's overall base-running value, and at the moment, Hamilton ranks as the second-best baserunner, between Dee Gordon and Ben Revere.
This is Hamilton going first to third on a routine infield groundout.
Here’s Hamilton scoring from third on basically an infield pop-out.
Though it's clear that Hamilton will occasionally make his outs on the bases, he does far more good than bad, sometimes in inconceivable ways.
Hamilton hasn't always been a center fielder — he started as a shortstop —but in the short time he's been playing the outfield, he's developed into an obvious and significant asset. You already saw the play he made Thursday. Here are a few more Hamilton defensive highlights. Cincinnati moved him to the outfield with the understanding that he'd have more than enough range. Now he's blending both range and instincts.
According to Inside Edge, the following two plays had a 1 — 10 percent chance of being turned into outs.
According to the same source, these plays were only a little bit easier.
Hamilton, who was a shortstop through 2012, has been a center fielder for a year and a half, and the evidence suggests he's one of the better defensive center fielders in baseball right now. The clips above are proof. Plus he ranks close to the top in two defensive categories: Defensive Runs Saved and Ultimate Zone Rating.
Defensive statistics are always a little controversial and uncertain, but when the numbers match the eyes, there's less room for disagreement, and Hamilton's defense seems to be really good.
What does this all mean for him? Blend everything into Wins Above Replacement (WAR), and Hamilton currently ranks as a top-15 outfielder. Not just center fielder. He ranks above names like Atlanta’s Justin Upton and Oakland’s Yoenis Cespedes.
Coincidentally, Hamilton is on a pace to just about equal last year's Reds center fielder, Shin-Soo Choo. By player type, Hamilton and Choo are virtual opposites, and they entered with similar if opposite questions.
It wasn't known if Choo would be good enough in the field. It wasn't known if Hamilton would be good enough at the plate. Choo's strengths more than made up for his mediocre defense. Hamilton's strengths should more than make up for his mediocre offense, that so far hasn't even been mediocre. While the Reds have gone a little unconventional, it's worked out for them.
It's highly unlikely that Hamilton will actually be a five-win player over the course of a full season. His defensive numbers are probably going to settle down, and he doesn't project to be a league-average hitter the rest of the way. But the base running is going to be there.
From the looks of things, a half-decent bat should be there. The defense appears legitimate, so overall, Hamilton could very well be an above-average player. Overall, he could be a good player, which is quite the turnaround from how people were talking about him just a couple of months ago.
The Billy Hamilton experiment hasn't been settled. With tremendous base running and quality defense, Hamilton needs to be able to hit only so much, and he's more than cleared that bar after getting off to a miserable start.
Therefore, it would appear that the Reds have a legitimate long-term center fielder on their hands, and Hamilton doesn't turn 24 until September. It's a promising development for what has been a polarizing player.
As for the question of whether Hamilton should continue to lead off, that's a bit different and a bit more complicated. Some of it depends on the rest of the roster, and some of it depends on where Hamilton's on-base percentage decides to settle. But, the pressing question has become where Hamilton ought to hit in the lineup. No longer is it whether he should even be in the lineup in the first place.
Not bad for a one-time struggling rookie.