Wins Above Replacement is a very imperfect statistic. Truthfully, it’s less a statistic and more a formula, a vessel that allows us to throw all the inputs we can possibly attempt to quantify into one box, shake it around for a bit, and open it up to find one tidy number. It is a heartfelt attempt to help determine what wins baseball games, placing value on the combination of running the bases, running down fly balls, and smacking dingers, which is an admittedly difficult, nebulous thing to create - so difficult, even, that we rely on both FanGraphs and Baseball Reference for their WAR totals despite them often being in wild disagreement.
While WAR is imperfect, it not-coincidentally serves as a very good tool to help evaluate the most imperfect players in the game. The kinds of players that bring things to the table aside from hitting 40 dingers and scoring tons of runs. The kind of player that can’t keep his on-base percentage over .300, has a career OPS+ 29 percent below league average, but has somehow found a way to be worth 10.0 fWAR over the course of his four full big league seasons, for instance. Billy Hamilton, whose speed, base stealing ability, and elite defense at a premium position, is exactly the kind of player WAR helps to highlight, as the skill set of the Cincinnati Reds CF isn’t the kind that lights up the scoreboard.
While Hamilton’s game is rife with flaws, there are certain aspects to it that are absolutely eye-popping, and its the latter traits that have him a fan favorite of many who follow the Reds. Bob Castellini, the principal owner of the Reds, is not the kind of owner who views the Reds purely as a business, and it’s not at all a stretch to say he’s huge fan of both the game of baseball and of the Reds themselves. Bob Castellini - the principal owner of the Reds - is also a Billy Hamilton fan, it seems, and ESPN’s Jerry Crasnick has now reported that the club owner would still like to see Hamilton “with us forever,” a sentiment he expressed a year ago and has apparently reiterated.
The #Reds have listened to Billy Hamilton trade offers all winter (most notably from #SFGiants), but owner Bob Castellini would have to approve any deal. "I hope Billy Hamilton is with us forever,'' Castellini said last January. I'm told his feelings on the topic haven't changed.— Jerry Crasnick (@jcrasnick) January 5, 2018
Of course, Hamilton’s name has been in trade rumors for weeks now, with the likes of the San Francisco Giants linked to him the most (and the Texas Rangers also kicking tires on him). With Hamilton coming off arguably his worst full season with the Reds and hitting his second year of arbitration eligibility (read: getting increasingly expensive), it’s not at all surprising to see him being shopped, imperfect player that he is, and all. But while trading for him has been something the team has been willing to listen to, the reported asking price for him has been high to the point where he still hasn’t come close to being moved, and that begs asking how much has Bob Castellini’s fandom impacted those would-be transactions?
It’s important to delineate what being a ‘fan’ of Billy Hamilton really means. His electric smile, his willingness to interact with fans, and his unmistakable voice are reasons to be a fan of his. The jaw-dropping catches he makes in CF, the ground he covers tracking fly balls, and the speed with which he swipes bags are reasons to be a fan of his. As mentioned before, the 10.0 fWAR he’s produced over his first four full seasons is a reason to be a fan of his. However, being a fan of Billy Hamilton doesn’t necessarily mean you have to be a fan of each and every aspect of his existence, and it’s that specificity that makes the Castellini favoritism so important.
Does Castellini wanting Hamilton in Cincinnati ‘forever’ mean he’s completely content with everything Hamilton has done for the last four years, or are there enough would-be qualifiers in that statement that we’re simply un-privy to seeing?
For instance, I was a huge fan of Adam Dunn. I’d have loved to see him crush dingers into the Ohio River forever. I was a fan of Adam Dunn honking dingers, and a big one at that. I was not a fan - not one iota - of Adam Dunn playing left field. Turtles laying on their backs have had more success turning themselves over than Adam Dunn had playing left field. It was not pretty. It should not have been happening. Most anyone with eyeballs and the ability to shriek could tell you that “Adam Dunn - left fielder” was a science experiment gone wrong, and the -5.7 dWAR he posted during his first four full seasons as a Red emphasizes that, as well.
However, there were dingers. Lots of them. Enough dinger-smashing to make Dunn worth just over 11 bWAR during his first four full seasons with the Reds.
Billy Hamilton, despite being the anti-Dunn both on the back of baseball cards and in physical stature, isn’t too dissimilar to Dunn in the eyes of WAR. I’m a big, big fan of Billy swiping 60 bags a season with a success rate anywhere close to 85%. Watching Billy track down would-be doubles and turning them into outs for Cincinnati’s young, dinger-happy pitching staff is something that adds incredible value. Having Billy patrol CF allows the Reds to put more bat-first players in their lineup at times, as they know he can cover more ground than your typical defender at his position. Having Billy and his career .298 on-base percentage anywhere near the top of the batting order, though, is another experiment gone horribly wrong, as all of us who have Two out, nobody on, Votto at the plate tattooed on their foreheads will freely admit.
However, there’s the defense, the Gold Glove snubs, and the increasingly amusing run of 56-57-58-59 steals in each of the last four seasons. There are reasons why he’s been worth 10 fWAR during that stint, and they’re good ones.
Keeping Billy Hamilton around for the foreseeable future isn’t a terrible idea at all, really, despite the fact that an owner meddling with the ability of the front office to make those decisions objectively might well be. Hamilton is 27, and despite the injury history he’s dealt with largely from being a little guy who slams into things at incredible speeds, he should still have a few more years of physical prime that will allow him to excel in the areas in which he’s already elite. Pair that with the lack of a ready-made CF replacement in the Cincinnati pipeline for at least another two years, and it’s not hard to make the argument that having him as a Red for another handful of years might well be prudent. However, wanting Hamilton to continue ‘forever’ exactly what he’s done daily for the Reds since 2014 is foolhardy, at best.
Adam Dunn as a DH from day one would’ve been tremendous. The day Tim Couch got to scrap being an option quarterback at the University of Kentucky and thrive in the Air Raid offense was a sight to behold. Billy Hamilton, the center fielder, the .298 on-base-percentage-haver, 9th-spot-in-the-lineup-hitter is something that would be perfectly acceptable to have around for a few more years, provided that’s an outcome that can be agreed upon by the powers that currently run the Reds.
Of course, it’s worth pointing out that four years of a .298 OBP is nearly two years more data than is needed to make that kind of lineup-altering decision. Since it’s not yet a move that’s been made, perhaps that’s an indication that Castellini truly is a fan of the Billy Hamilton status quo - and, if that’s the case, this could well be endemic of a much, much larger issue.