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Updating the Top 100: Billy Hamilton

Arizona Diamondbacks v Cincinnati Reds Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

Let’s forget about eye tests and advanced metrics for a minute and focus on back-of-the-baseball-card stats only. Billy Hamilton appeared in more games in 2018 than he had in any previous season. He didn’t max out in plate appearances, because he had a few handfuls of games where he was a late-inning replacement, but he batted a healthy amount nonetheless. He drew more walks in 2018 than ever before. He hit fewer doubles than average.

That’s a weird accumulation of numbers, meant to lead up to the fact that Billy Hamilton, after stealing between 55 and 60 bases each of the last four years, only stole 34 in 2018. And the advanced metrics would tell us that Hamilton, the fastest ballplayer any of us have ever seen, was only three runs better than an average player on the basepaths this past season. What gives?

As a fan, Hamilton’s career was significant. For starters, his rookie debut was the most excited I have ever been for a new player. My willingness to project some wild numbers onto Hamilton belied anything I had ever learned about analytical forecasting. 100 stolen bases per year and 125 runs scored was a given in my mind.

And then conversely, Hamilton reminded us how hard it truly is to hit a baseball consistently well and how difficult it is to succeed with one great tool and marginal skills elsewhere. He peaked early and, if trending is anything to be relied upon, will be no more than a replacement level player by age 27.

I give a lot of credit to the Reds for giving Hamilton the kind of opportunity they did. It would have been easy to get so frustrated with his limitations that he’d be banished to part-time specialist roles. He got every conceivable chance, in large part because the team hasn’t been any good, during his time here and he never turned into what we all were hoping for. That’s not to bash Hamilton for not being a great hitter, but more a reflection of how world-class skills invoke excitement.

And, to be fair, the Reds also need credit for cutting bait when they did. They never had to spend exorbitantly nor block an elite prospect in employing Hamilton and they did not cheat him out of opportunities. It was a fun ride and when our kids and grandkids ask us about him we’ll tell exciting stories that don’t line up with the back of the baseball card.

Hamilton was called up to the Reds late in 2013 and appeared in 690 games with the team. His batting line of .245/.298/.333 was good for an OPS+ of 70. He has 277 stolen bases (good for 8th all time on the Reds’ career leaderboard) and 365 runs scored. Hamilton was granted free agency after the 2018 seasons and has signed with the Kansas City Royals. Hamilton’s 2018 season moved him from #188 to #162 on the all-time player list.