Billy Hamilton is an elite defender. Billy Hamilton is an elite base runner. Billy Hamilton is a very poor hitter. These are the things you are going to see in nearly every article around the internet written about Billy Hamilton in the 2015 season and every one of those statements holds true.
According to Fangraphs, Billy Hamilton has provided the second most defensive value in baseball this season, trailing only the Tampa Bay Rays Kevin Kiermaier. According to Fangraphs, Billy Hamilton leads baseball in baserunning value by such a wide margin that he would lead baseball if you combined the totals of the two guys that ranks 2nd and 3rd in all of baseball. Unfortunately, Billy Hamilton also has the 4th worst weighted runs created (wRC+) total in baseball (which measures what a guy is able to do at the plate). Billy Hamilton is an extreme player in every sense of the word. He’s either elite at a skill, or he’s among the worst in the game at a skill.
With the best speed that baseball has seen in a long time, short of some sort of serious injury, Billy Hamilton should remain elite on defense and on the bases for quite a while. So the question is, can he improve on a .221/.271/.290 line?
In order to figure that out, we need to figure out exactly how he’s producing that line. Let’s break it down into different categories with a brief explanation.
Walk Rate | It’s currently sitting at 6.2%, which is low, but probably won’t change too much. Pitchers don’t want to put him on the bases and realistically aren’t worried about throwing him strikes as he isn’t likely to put the ball over the fence.
Strikeout Rate | The strikeout rate is currently at 15%, which is easily the best of his short career, even including the minor leagues. He is making more contact than ever before, and that’s usually a good thing.
Power | His isolated power (SLG-AVG) is at .069, down from .105 last season. While there is probably room for improvement, the improvement will be minimal as Hamilton simply isn’t going to hit for power.
BABIP | Batting average on balls in play is something that we usually think that hitters control more than pitchers control. Right now, Billy Hamilton has a .252 BABIP, which is much lower than the league average of .300.
Generally speaking, those four things are going to create a players batting line. While it’s certainly possible that Hamilton can improve his walk rate, his strikeout rate or his power output, it’s probably not likely to see too much improvement in any of those categories either. If Billy Hamilton is going to make a big improvement somewhere it’s probably going to come from his BABIP, which is well below-average right now compared to the league.
Fast guys typically have above-average batting averages on balls in play. The reason is simply that they can beat out enough infield hits to swing things in their favor. You’d think the same thing would hold true for Billy Hamilton, but in 2014 it didn’t really do that as he posted a league average rate of .304. As noted above, it’s only at .252 this season.
Why is it that Billy Hamilton, the fastest runner in baseball, is so far below the league average when he puts the ball in play? Let’s take a look at where the speed should come into play and look at how he’s doing on baseballs fielded by infielders versus what the league is doing.
|AVG on infield|
That looks right. Billy Hamilton is much better at turning balls hit to infielders into hits than the league is. His speed has been worth eight extra hits this season versus just the league average on infield fielded baseballs. Hamilton is doing the work here.
What about the fly balls? Hamilton hits as many fly balls as he hits groundballs, which on it’s own isn’t an issue for most players. Let’s take a look at how Hamilton is at turning fly balls into hits versus the league average.
|AVG on Fly Balls
There’s a difference he’s of nearly 30 points, but that’s really only been worth two hits this season versus if he were hitting .139 because the sample size is only 54 at-bats.
Most players hit better when they put the ball in the air than on the ground, but that’s mostly because of their ability to hit the ball in the air over the fence. That’s not something that Hamilton is going to do. And we can see that by his low average on fly balls. The old adage that speedy guys should put the ball on the ground and try to beat the throw to first base holds true. Obviously the key is to try and hit the ball hard every time up, but for Hamilton getting the ball on the ground has worked out far better for him than when he’s put the ball in the air. If Hamilton can swing his groundball and fly ball rates to be slanted toward more ground balls, he could really pick up some additional hits with that change.
Hamilton has a line drive rate of 22.3% this season. That’s a league average rate, so he’s doing his work there as well. But, the results of how his line drives have turned out hasn’t been nearly as good as the league average. Let’s take a look.
|AVG on Line Drives|
That’s a huge swing in average for Hamilton versus the league average. To push Hamilton to .639 on line drives would be worth an additional 17 hits versus what he’s had on line drives this season. 17 additional hits would turn Billy Hamilton into a .283 hitter this season.
Having Billy Hamilton hit .283 would be huge for the Cincinnati Reds. But can we expect him to ever be league average on line drives? Conventional wisdom says that we shouldn’t. First, we need to acknowledge that the league average player is going to hit more line drive home runs than Billy Hamilton is, and those baseballs aren’t catchable. That won’t make a big difference, but it probably does swing things a small amount.
Where the biggest thing comes into play, at least when thinking it all through, is that for Billy Hamilton, outfielders have to cover less ground, thus making it easier to turn line drives into outs than on your typical player. They have to cover less ground because without the threat of power, they can play several steps in compared to your average hitter. Line drives, generally have a similar angle or they’d be fly balls or groundballs. So it’s really coming down to how hard you are hitting line drives.
While we don’t have perfect data because not all parks have the Trackman set up to find the exit velocity, most of them do at this point in the season and only a handful of hits seem to be missing for each hitter. Thanks to BaseballSavant.com we can find these exit velocities for all players in baseball. Setting the minimum number of line drives to 40 on the season gives us a sample size of 140 players. Of those 140 players, Billy Hamilton is dead last with an average line drive velocity of just 84.26 MPH. 108 players are over 90.0 MPH, so Hamilton isn’t just last, he’s way down the list in terms of how hard he hits his line drives. Here’s a comparison of Hamilton on line drives:
|AVGVelo on line drives|
|Top in baseball||105.50|
Hamilton’s average exit velocity on line drives is 10% lower than the league average. When outfielders already know they can play in more than a few steps, it’s going to shorten the field and allow them to turn softer hit line drives into outs. At least in theory. So the question now becomes, does that hold true? Do his line drives travel less distance?
Once again, thanks to BaseballSavant.com we can look at that data and find out.
|AVGFT on line drives|
|Tops in baseball||329.62|
While Hamilton wasn’t last among this group, he ranked 128th out of 140 batters in average distance on line drives hit at 277.5 feet. That’s 19 feet shorter than the league average. With a defense already playing in, 277.5 feet may fall right in line with exactly the right range for fielders to be able to get to the ball in time before it finds the grass.
The line drives seem to be a bit of a problem area that could improve, and realistically should improve in terms of going for hits. Hitting .403 on line drives just doesn’t seem sustainable. That’s a very, very low rate of conversion. But, with Hamilton not being able to hit line drives as hard or as far as nearly every other player in baseball, the shrinking of the area that is needed to be covered by defenders also suggests that he’s not going to convert line drives into hits as often as the league average either.
What if Billy Hamilton were to split the difference between where he’s at now on line drives and where the Major League average is at in terms of turning line drives into hits? That would currently make him a .250 hitter and bring his average up 29 full points. That would boost his on-base percentage to .298, which still isn’t very good, but it’s a big improvement from where he’s currently sitting at. It would push his slugging percentage over the .300 mark. Essentially, it would return his numbers to roughly where they were at last season, but with much better base running abilities.
Six weeks ago I wrote about how it might be time for Billy Hamilton to give up switch hitting and focus solely on hitting from the right side. I still think that holds true and the numbers do reflect that where he’s got an OPS nearly 100 points higher from the right side of the plate. Hamilton has said he’s thought about giving up hitting from the left side, but also notes he believes that all switch hitters think about it because one side just feels more natural than the other. There could be some room for improvement on the offensive side of things from this happening, assuming that he isn’t just helpless against like-handed pitchers from the right side.
If we can find some improvements in his ability to hit the ball on the ground a little more often, it should help boost his offense. If that can be coupled with a more normalized rate of line drives turning into hits, then there could be another boost in offense. Giving up hitting from the left side could also be beneficial and boost his offense. There’s a whole lot of “what if” going on there, and it’s probably not likely that they all happen, but improvements in any one of those areas will help out and if more than one happens it could make a real, noticeable difference. The hope is there for an improved version of Billy Hamilton, but there’s also some work to do in order to get there.