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Updating the Top 100: Billy Hamilton

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Billy Hamilton’s place on the all-time list

MLB: New York Yankees at Cincinnati Reds Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

Through the sheer volume of data that exists in baseball, we get these weird trend lines sometimes that don’t really mean anything on their own but just sit there as curiosities to be head-scratched over. As an example: Billy Hamilton has played four seasons of more-or-less full time baseball, and has amassed a tidy trend of stolen base totals: 56 in 2014, then 57, then 58, and now 59 this season. He finished 2nd in the NL in this category each of the four seasons. Does that mean anything? We could probably deduce that Hamilton is fast, even if we’d never seen him play. Should we expect Hamilton to steal exactly 60 bases in 2018? The odds are certainly heavily stacked against that exact outcome, but it might be something fun to watch late next year if there’s not much consequence to the outcome of the Reds games.

Another curiosity surrounding Hamilton: Coming into the 2017 season, Hamilton had a career batting line of .248/.297/.334. What did he hit in 2017? A near-perfect match: .247/.299/.335. Unfortunately, this is a weird result that contains more news than the prior example.

For one thing, context continues to matter. A static batting line in an environment of increasing offense is, of course, less than optimal.

Second, and even more discouragingly, for all we’ve heard about the extra work and focus Hamilton has applied to his hitting (he’s being mentored by Votto!, etc.), the results are decidedly non-apparent, especially in terms of his approach. Walk rate: down this year. Strikeout rate: up. Ground ball rate, from the MLB player seemingly most incentivized to hit ground balls: down.

And then, from an aesthetic point of view, forget the numbers for a minute and throw back to your memory to when we were first hearing about Hamilton’s exploits in the minors and how you mentally forecasted how that might translate? Said bluntly, wouldn’t you expect a guy who can tag up from third on a pop-up to the second baseman to hit more than three doubles a month?

At this point, we are well beyond projection. A guy who finished 2nd in the league in steals and who finished top ten in the NL in singles still had 100% of his value over replacement come from the fact that he plays a premium defensive position well. He enters his age-27 season in 2018, which means he’s almost certainly not cooked and his elite speed remains intact. A dead cat bounce wouldn’t be unexpected, but the team probably should no longer be in a position to give him 600+ plate appearances, especially at the top of the order. I wrote a few days ago that a creative platoon between Hamilton and Winker might be useful, but the more I think about it, the more fungible I see the entire outfield. Have Hamilton as the designated late inning guy, to be inserted whenever any outfielder gets on base in a high-leverage situation for base-running antics and then he can go to centerfield, with one of the other outfielders moving to one of the corners, if necessary. It’s not ideal, in that the Reds don’t really have any other quality centerfield defenders on the roster, but this is a situation screaming for trying some things slightly more innovative than sticking the fast centerfielder at the top of the lineup card every day. #HiDusty

In four full seasons, plus a cuppa coffee in a fifth, Billy Hamilton has played in 537 games for the Reds, with almost 2,200 plate appearances in that time, posting a batting line of .248/.298/.334 (71 OPS+). According to baseball-reference, he has saved 47 runs in the field compared to an average CF over his career. He has also stolen 243 bases, against 52 times caught. With his 2017 efforts, Hamilton pops from #231 on the all-time Reds list to #188.