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Billy Hamilton has just stopped stealing bases

What’s up with the speediest guy in the game?

Washington Nationals v Cincinnati Reds
Is it because he can’t see?
Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

The lenses in a decent pair of sunglasses allow you to keep from both squinting and going blind when you look at all in the sun’s direction. There’s a large part of me that wishes there was a comparable lens I could use to prevent those things from happening when I look at Billy Hamilton’s 2018 stats, too.

The speedy Cincinnati Reds CF has now logged 49 games played in this, the fifth full season in which he’s been a pillar of the team’s lineup, and while we’ve long hoped that his offensive development would finally begin to yield even just palatable results, that still hasn’t materialized. At all. As unsightly as his current .199 average is, the .291 slugging percentage also makes you want to cover your eyes, and the reality is that his current .580 OPS and 61 OPS+ rank right next to his disastrous 2015 season numbers as the worst of his career to date.

That’s all just bad, no doubt. But even in Billy’s worst struggles, two things have always come with rolling him out in the lineup everyday: otherworldly defense, and a pile of stolen bases unlike any other in the game. In fact, while injuries have derailed his chase to lead all of MLB in steals in multiple individual seasons, the 230 bags he’s swiped over the last four seasons leads all of baseball by a wide margin, with only Dee Gordon’s 212 in that time standing in between Billy and Jose Altuve (156) in a distant third.

So, when I noticed that Billy has only stolen a base in one of his last 28 games played, that jumped out as quite odd. When I noticed that, say, 32 year old Lorenzo Cain had swiped more bags than Billy this year - as have 14 other players across MLB - that made me scratch my head a bit, too. While he’s been completely punchless when swinging the bat, Billy does boast an 11.2% walk rate this year that’s far and away the best of his career, which makes his current .288 OBP more or less in-line with his career .297 mark, meaning that, in theory, he should have had roughly the same amount of opportunity to run this year as he did in 2015, when he swiped 57 bases in just 114 games played while owning an awful .274 OBP for the season.

So, while it’s easy to say he’s not stealing bases because he can’t get on base!, the reality is that he’s always stolen bases and never been on base prior to this year. Now, for some reason, he’s just not stealing bases like he used to.

If you back things up to the games in which Jim Riggleman has managed since taking over for Bryan Price, you get 32 games with Billy in the lineup at some point, in which time he’s posted a .291 OBP, swiped 4 bags, and been caught stealing twice. The bulk of that work came in the one game against Rich Hill and the Los Angeles Dodgers in which he stole 3 bags back on May 13th. In the other 31 games under Riggleman, Billy has but one stolen base, so perhaps there’s a philosophical change with the new manager that has put the kibosh on him taking bases.

The other caveat, of course, is that Billy has largely, mercifully been moved out of the leadoff spot in the lineup since Riggleman took over. In those 32 games, Billy’s led off in just 4 of them, while he’s been slotted 9th a whopping 26 times. Could it possibly be that there’s some form of strategic reasoning behind putting the brakes on Billy when the top of the lineup turns over and he’s on 1B? It can’t merely be a byproduct of having Jose Peraza hitting leadoff and swinging immediately at the first pitch he sees - Peraza has only hit leadoff 10 times since Riggleman took over, while the ultra-patient Jesse Winker has led off 20 times in that time.

No, there’s got to be something larger at play for him to have just 8 steals on the season, a pace that would have him finish with just 25 this year after picking up 56, 57, 58, and 59 over his last four seasons, respectively - and what that is, I just don’t know.

What I do know, though, is that if he’s not swiping bags while on the bases, that awful slugging percentage looks increasingly worse. There’s plenty of truth to the idea that slap-hitting a single and then stealing 2B works effectively as well as just blasting a double off the walls in CF, and Billy has certainly made a living off reaching 2B in the former way more than the latter in his Cincinnati career. In many ways, it’s been the straw that broke the camel’s back against the argument that he shouldn’t be a big leaguer over the last few years, as the baserunning component of FanGraphs’ WAR hasn’t just rated him the best baserunner in the game over the last four years combined, it’s rated him over 1.4 times better than the next best guy on that list.

This year, though, he ranks just 9th according to BsR, which means it’s pretty much just defense that’s now become his one trick. If anything, you always hope to see players either maintain their skills or even add to them as they reach their arbitration years and get increasingly expensive, which makes it even that much more alarming that one of the two skills that Billy has that far outpace his peers isn’t being put to use.

What’s the most interesting aspect about this, I think, is that the fix for this should be quite simple. Unlike when a hitter goes into a slump or a shortstop gets the yips, Billy’s lack of steals hasn’t been because he’s been getting thrown out. And, if watching him on defense is any indication, he sure as hell hasn’t slowed down at all. That means that if the Reds want him to again be a terror on the bases, all that needs to change is for him to...well, for him to run again. No work in the batting cage on hitting the low and away breaking ball, no fielding practice to figure out why short-hops are kicking off the back of the glove, not even mind tricks for a catcher to help him stop overthrowing the pitcher after each pitch; just, run when you find yourself on-base.

Billy’s base-stealing was long one of the more dramatic things to watch about these Reds. I hope to hell we get to see more of it again while he’s still a part of this team.