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Updating the All-Time Reds List: Billy Hamilton

In which America's favorite fast person is discussed

All blurry like.
All blurry like.
Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

The immediate aftermath of a season like this one is always a strange emotional exercise for me.  I've always had an affinity for baseball and numbers and the overlapping of the two.  The end of a bad season means no more baseball involving the good guys to watch but it also means that there's freshly minted data to consider.  And while there's data produced every day during the season, the year-end data is certified as an Acceptable Endpoint for Long-Term Usage as well as being static for six months hence.  It is a resting point for new assumptions to be formed and old assumptions to be refined.

Moreover, the aftermath serves as a time for me to get reacquainted with the team that I've drifted from over the past few months, as mostly irrelevant 20-below-500 games fall in the pecking order beneath other obligations.  Sometimes, the exercise is surreal: Wandy Peralta??  That sounds an awful lot like the name of a girl I knew in high school (Wendy something-or-other.  She probably couldn't pitch.).  Layne Somsen?? Patrick Kivlehan??  Who are these guys?

That's a poor admission from a guy who is listed as a moderator (how, why?) at the Internet's #1 spot for Reds discussion and bad jokes.

That weakness can turn into a strength, however, in that it allows for some snap judgments that can be hard to come by in the midst of the day-to-day.  To wit: I was aware of the mild grumbling associated with the bullpen role currently assigned to Raisel Iglesias.  However, when the year-end data is pulled, one of the first thing that jumps off the page is the number of ineffective relievers: eleven different pitchers, with nearly 130 combined innings pitched; none of them with an ERA below 6.  Small sample sizes?  Of course, but that's kind of the point.  The Reds kept throwing crap against the wall in the hopes that one of the cow chips wasn't crap.  Spoiler alert: they all were.

Which brings us to Billy Hamilton.  One of the thematic narratives from this season was the strong bounce back from America's favorite speedster.  And 2016 most certainly was an improvement, a strong improvement, over 2015.  Using bWAR to create a simple trend line, Hamilton's value has moved from 2.5 to 1.0 to 2.8 (2014-16).  2.8 WAR is good enough to rank 7th in the National League among players who primarily played centerfield. Middle of the pack, and certainly a qualified starter.  My eyes, however, still tend to focus on batting numbers before I get to the comprehensive value section of each player's baseball-reference page.  Hamilton's 77 OPS+ was the 20th worst among all NL players with at least 100 games played.

None of this, of course, is breaking news.  Hamilton's strengths have always been broadcast in big shiny lights, tempered by an equally bright asterisk referencing the footnote in fine print: "assuming he hits well enough".

And, so far, he is hitting "well enough".  He qualifies as an acceptable starter despite an otherwise unacceptable bat, based solely on his world class speed (he already ranks 24th among active players in career stolen bases) and his outstanding defense.

The below-the-surface concerns, for me, are two-fold.  First, we've long lamented that if Billy Hamilton could just learn how to take a walk, he would be dangerous.  He's certainly making progress: Hamilton's walk rate has increased from 5.6% to 6.2% to 7.8%, the latter being basically an average MLB rate.  So perhaps there is more improvement to come, but still: an off-the-charts speed rating combined with a now league average walk rate adds up to...a still sub-par on-base percentage.  Disappointing.  All the same, perhaps we are were on to something.  Extrapolate Hamilton's 2016 truncated season over a full 162 games and he would have approached 80 stolen bases, a figure that hasn't been seen since Pete Rose was still allowed inside a dugout.

That what-if scenario actually points to concern #2.  Hamilton has now missed about one-fourth of the past two seasons due to injury.  I'm not quite willing to throw around "injury prone" labels, but it does seem plausible that Hamilton subjects his body to unusual amounts of abuse just to play the requisite style of baseball to keep him employed.

There's still hope.  His speed has not seem to have diminished at all.  His eye has improved.  He is nearing the age where peak seasons are most likely to occur.  He's entering the first year of arbitration in 2017, meaning he's still a bargain, banjo hitter or not.  I've long since given up hope of star status for Hamilton, yielding to more modest wishes: I'd like to see him steal 80+ bases in a season and I'd like to see a fluke BABIP-fueled year where he hits .300 and has an OBP of .370.  Just once.  And if that happened while he was young enough, he might steal 100.

Hamilton has played in nearly 400 games for the Reds, putting together a batting line of .248/.297/.334 (73 OPS+).  He has 184 stolen bases and 206 runs scored.  He debuts on the all-time player list at #231.