On April 19, 2017, the Reds hosted the Baltimore Orioles with three things in their favor: first, Cincy had stormed out of the season's opening gates hot, sporting a 9-5 record in the early going; second, the Reds were sending to the mound rookie Amir Garrett, who had given up a combined two runs over the first two starts of his career; and third, the Orioles were pitching Ubaldo Jimenez. Jimenez has the distinction of: a) not being very good in recent years, and b) being even worse so far in 2017. In fact, his ERA was in double digit territory when he faced the Reds in April, although standard April sample size caveats should apply to this memory.
More specifically, Jimenez's descent into sub-mediocrity has correlated very closely with his inability to limit the number of walks he gives up. He has allowed roughly one walk for every two innings pitched with the Orioles since 2014.
The titanic struggle between Redlegs and Orioles began with promise, as Garrett mowed down the top third of the Birds' order. Hamilton came to bat, drew a first pitch ball, then promptly bunted straight back to the pitcher. I may or may not have thrown something. To wit: Jimenez prone to control issues, prone to short outings, Reds had forced a lot of innings from the Orioles the night before, Hamilton historically averages 1-2 bunt hits per month, etc. Jimenez went on to get out of the 1st inning in 11 pitches and went on to cruise through 7.2 innings of shutout ball to get the win.
The point is not to say that the Reds would have won the game had Hamilton approached the at-bat differently, but the bunt out was yet another reminder of the taunting and tantalizing contrast between Hamilton's value as a runner and as a hitter.
On the occasion of Billy Hamilton's 200th stolen base and the accompanying fanfare that came with that (i.e., 4th quickest [so to speak] to 200 steals), I began to think about Hamilton's existence as an outlier. Moreover, I was curious to understand how Hamilton might exist as an outlier within a population of outliers. Here we go (author's note: I began this article on Friday and built the below graphs at that point. Happily, Hamilton went nuts this past weekend, which changed some of the numbers and tone of the below article. The graphs have not been updated, however, so there may be small discrepancies between the words and the visual accompaniment)...
Fangraphs has a nifty little metric called wSB which, as I dumb it down for my own interpretation and understanding, seeks to calculate how many runs a player has contributed through the stolen base, compared to the league average player in the particular environment in which he plays. I called this a population of outliers, because according to the wSB metric, only 100 players since 1901 have accumulated more than 20 career wins added above an average player through the use of the stolen base. Hamilton is already tied for 82nd on the career list, tied with luminaries Johnny Hopp and Shane Victorino. When sifting through the data, one thing that generally becomes clear is that if you have enough speed to qualify for a list like this, then the amount of wSB is loosely a function of how long your career is:
A few introductory notes. First, there are good base stealers, great base stealers, and then the mind-blowingly elite. Nine players have added at least 60 runs over their career through stolen bases: Rickey Henderson, Tim Raines, Max Carey, Willie Wilson, Joe Morgan, Vince Coleman, Lou Brock, Davey Lopes, and Ty Cobb. Henderson is on another planet: if you cut his stolen base value in half, he'd still rank 7th all-time. Another note: I was born too late to have seen Hank Aaron play, which means I will never understand just how good he was. I didn't expect to see him on this list at all. Other notes: our original cut-off was 20 runs added above average, but the drop-off becomes steep; just 30 or so players have reached 40 runs added (Barry Larkin and Eric Davis both added just over 40 runs for their careers, by the way). And it's basically a given that if you have at least 20 wSB, you have over 4000 plate appearances. Billy Hamilton doesn't even have 1700 PA yet. We can show this same relationship a different way, so that the extreme-iest base stealers are at the top:
There it is. Hamilton adds a run above average through the stolen base roughly every 72 plate appearances, which is the highest rate in baseball history...almost. You might be able to see that blue dot just above Billy's. That belongs to Mariners' outfielder Jarrod Dyson, who is both a contemporary of Hamilton's and his most obvious parallel in many ways, except that Dyson's kinda better in the field and at the plate. Call him Billy Hamilton's aspirational best-case scenario.
Another graph. What if we plot wSB against the rate of stolen bases per single, double, or walk?
Hamilton has a stolen base in 44% of his "opportunities". This is the highest such rate in modern MLB history. Let's point out the absurdity of Vince Coleman for a minute. He wasn't a great player, but he did play about 3.5 times longer than Hamilton has so far and he kept up a stolen base rate similar to Hamilton's throughout his entire career.
The modern single-season stolen base record belongs to Rickey Henderson, who stole 130 bases in 1982. That year, he had 105 singles, 24 doubles, and 116 walks, meaning that his "SB rate" was 53% that year. He was insane. For Hamilton to ever reach 100 bases, he would need roughly 226 singles, doubles, or walks. If he got to plate 600 times and never tripled or homered, that would equate to a .376 on-base percentage. Since his career OBP mark is .295, I think we can safely conclude that 100 steals is 100% out of the question.
Which is a segue into our final graph:
Billy Hamilton is, more or less, the worst hitting elite base stealer of all time. His wRC+ of 72 is next worst among the 100 players represented here (just ahead of Larry Bowa). And we haven't, you know, seen Hamilton's decline phase yet. Coleman, who is regularly pointed out as the epitome of the 1980's no-hit, all-run speedster, still had a wRC+ 15 points higher than Hamilton.
The point to all this, such that there is one, is perhaps three-fold:
1) Billy Hamilton is doing things that are exceedingly rare in the history of baseball;
2) Billy Hamilton is perhaps only marginally capable of being an everyday player on a winning team. This is an intentionally inflammatory sentence, I suppose. The Cubs won the World Series carrying Jason Heyward around last year, so it's possible that Hamilton could also play on a winner. But his margin of error is oh so thin. Perhaps the larger point is that Hamilton is a great diversion to have in a down stretch of seasons.
3) Which means pay attention and enjoy the little moments while they're here, because I can't for the life of me tell if Hamilton is progressing as a hitter at all. And if he's not (and the early 2017 season OPS+ of 75 suggests that he's not much changed), then Hamilton could fall of the proverbial cliff (due to injury or ineffectiveness) at pretty much any moment. For example, he currently leads the NL in stolen bases and is essentially replacement level. That's generally unsustainable.