Billy Hamilton has been a lightning rod of sorts for the Cincinnati Reds, and I don’t just mean that he makes electrifying plays. He can change a game with his speed, both in the field and on the bases. That last part comes with the caveat of, at least in the past, when he gets on base and for some, he’s never been able to actually get on base enough. He entered the 2016 season with 279 games under his belt, roughly two seasons worth of playing time, and his on-base percentage was just .287 for his career. That’s not good, at all.
As I type this on Monday morning he currently has a .318 on-base percentage on the season, an enormous step up from where he’s been in the past. More times on base, more value added on the bases, more steals, more runs scored – it’s great to see Billy Hamilton on the bases more often.
We all know that Hamilton is one of, if not the fastest players in baseball. Since the start of the 2014 season began, the Reds center fielder leads all of baseball in Fangraphs baserunning value with a 31.3 mark. The next player on the list is Ben Revere who has a mark of 19.3. That puts Billy Hamilton as 62% MORE valuable on the basepaths than the next best baserunner in the game. Think about how incredible that is. Then think about the fact that he’s been very bad at actually getting on base in his career.
This year he’s already provided 10.3 runs on the bases, leading all of baseball (Rajai Davis is second with 8.0). The big difference seems to go back to his ability to get on base more frequently. On the season he’s not really walking any more often than he has in the past. His current walk rate is at 7.0%, while his career rate is 6.2%. While that’s up, it’s not a difference maker. His strikeout rate is actually up this season as well, though not noticeably (19.6% in 2016, 18.4% for his career).
Where the difference has come from is that his batting average on balls in play. In the 2016 season it’s at a career best .328, while it was under .300 for his career entering the season (it currently sits at .300 for his career). With his speed it was always assumed that he would be a higher end BABIP guy as his legs could buy him additional infield hits. That hasn’t really been the case for his career, partly due to the fact that he simply didn’t hit the ball on the ground too often and thus it limited the chances to turn out those extra infield hits coupled with the fact that he simply doesn’t hit the ball hard enough to go over the fence, making for plenty of easy playable fly balls. This season he’s upped his line drive rate and his groundball rate. He actually has the lowest infield hit rate of his career as well as the lowest bunt hit rate of his career.
While the 2016 season has been solid overall at the plate, what Billy Hamilton has done in the second half is teasing a whole lot of what could be. It’s only been 27 games, but he’s currently hitting .324/.392/.389 with 12 walks and 21 strikeouts in 120 plate appearances. His line drive rate is up, but what’s been a big difference maker is that his infield fly ball rate is way down. Small sample size applies to all things in the second half. Right now, everything seems to be coming up Hamilton, and his .402 BABIP certainly helps reflect that. Carrying forward a .402 BABIP isn’t realistic, even for someone as fast as Hamilton is. But , what would a Billy Hamilton with a .350 BABIP look like that also carried forward a 10% walk rate that he’s been showing in the second half of 2016?
Assuming that he can keep the same rates in strikeouts (20%), hit by pitches for his career and home runs to go along with a .350 BABIP that would put Hamilton in the .360-.365 on-base percentage range. If you could take the base running abilities of Billy Hamilton and put him on base at a .360 clip, instead of a .290 clip, we are talking about an extra 42 times on base in a season (assuming 600 plate appearances).
On the bases alone, that would provide an additional 3-4 runs of value assuming he keeps up the same pace of value added he has throughout his career per time on base. That doesn’t account for anything that comes with what he’s done at the plate, which would also add tons of value as well. Maybe we are just seeing a really nice hot streak for Billy Hamilton right now and he’s going to come back to the guy that he has been in the past. But right now we are getting a taste of what could be, and it’s been really fun to watch. Even better, it’s been incredibly productive. Hopefully for the Reds this is closer to the new version of Billy Hamilton rather than just a version of Billy Hamilton that’s feeling it and on a roll.