At the beginning of the season, most experts pegged Billy Hamilton as a no-hit, all-speed ersatz pinch runner playing a brand of baseball last popular when mullets, stone-washed jeans, and New Kids on the Block ruled the earth. He was Herb Washington redux, a sideshow that distracted from the importance of other, better players.
ZiPS projected Hamilton to be a 1.5 WAR player ticketed not for stardom but for AAA Louisville. Steamer's projections were even bleaker. Mike Podhorzer (a Fangraphs writer) predicted Hamilton wouldn't make it out of May without getting his I-71 ticket punched. Ditto many, many others.
As of the end of today's doubleheader with the Cubs, Hamilton's produced the following 2014 slash line: 280/ 312/ 417. In the late 90s - Aughts Cave Man Era of PED baseball, that might not seem like a great deal; however, it moves Hamilton to a season-high 101 wRC+. What's wRC+? Glad you asked. From Fangraphs:
Similar to OPS+, Weighted Runs Created Plus (wRC+) measures how a player’s wRC compares with league average. League average is 100, and every point above 100 is a percentage point above league average.
Generally, a 101 wRC+ means little more than a hitter is pretty average. At this point, Hamilton's turned out to be a league average bat. So what, you ask?
Let's add that bat to his other tools:
Hamilton's speed has been discussed ad nauseum. Suffice to say he's quick. Again, as of today, 37 SB v. 12 CS. That's a 76% success rate and one reason his BsR ranks second among CF and sixth overall. What's odd is that that number is likely to improve as the season wears on. Up until a recent rash of poor baserunning choices, Hamilton was second to Dee Gordon for most of the season. Still, sixth in the entire mlb? Cool.
Defensively, Hamilton is the best CF in the game by a wide, wide margin. His 14.1 Def rating fits below just Alex Gordon and Jason Heyward as third in baseball. Understand, UZR isn't a great tool for measuring defense, as it takes, generally, three years to grade out properly. However, Hamilton's AAA numbers last year were staggering. And it was his first taste of CF. It's safe to say, then, that Hamilton is at least a Gold Glove contender and plus-plus defender at this point.
Add it all up, and Hamilton ranks among baseball's top 25 in WAR. He's sixth among all National League outfielders, behind only Stanton, McCutchen, Gomez, Puig, and Captain Underpants. That's mighty fine company to keep.
Based purely on the numbers, then, Hamilton has a strong case for an All-Star nod.
However, this is baseball; numbers aren't the entirety of the story. And Billy's story is one of the best of the season.
His interviews are ridiculous. The rat-a-tat machine gunning of entire paragraphs in record time. The platitudes lost in the I-can't-believe-how-much-fun-this-is smile of a 12-year-old hopped up on Pixie Stix and Mountain Dew. The joie de vivre watch-this moments he creates with a glove on his hand. The bunts that are thisclose even though figuratively everyone knows he's doing it. Hamilton is the precious present bundled in the body of an high school sprinter.
What's not to love there?
And, what's more, that pure exhilaration-- the jazz fingers and headfirst slides, the bounding into walls, bases, and other players at Mach one-- rubs off on others. I dare you to watch Hamilton without grinning. It can't be done. He makes not just plays, but memories. Remember when he hit a double on a ground ball to second? Remember when he tagged up on an infield pop fly? Remember when he caught that ball everyone just knew was going for a double? And slowed down to do it?
He's excitement you didn't know the game was missing. He allows old-timers to hold court on Cool Papa Bell, Richie Ashburn, Maury Wills, and Tim Raines. He allows writers to wax poetic about Willie Wilson, Omar Moreno, and Ozzie Smith running wild, afros high, on Astroturf in the 70s. He reminds us all of Whitey's Rabbits and the go-go Sox, and the Gashouse Gang. He's pure id on the field-- a hunch on top of a feeling on top of an emotion. And that emotion is almost always joy. Joy at playing a game. Joy at being so fast that you can outrun everything.
Next week, as the All-Stars all show up in Minnesota. Muscles, yawns, and mid-inning replacements will be de rigueur. All will politely cheer Derek Jeter's career as the ever-calculating Captain of competency. The Cardinal Way will once again be discussed repeatedly.
And I will watch. As I always do.
But deep down, I know this game, like almost all others, would be better with Billy Hamilton in it. Hamilton slashing one down the line and thinking triple all the way. Hamilton stealing second base with a buzz in the air so thick, it's palpable. Hamilton streaking across the outfield to rob yet another hitter of yet another double.
The entire time, of course, he'd be smiling.
As would we all.