Contemplating the value of Billy Hamilton

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By Jake Seiner @Jake_Seiner / MiLB.com

What follows is meant to be read as something of a thought experiment. I, like many, have been thinking about Billy Hamilton of late, contemplating his skill set and how it might play at the Major League level. Over the past month, we’ve seen the impact his speed can have. Despite playing in only 13 games, Hamilton finished second on the Reds with 13 stolen bases — trailing only Shin-Soo Choo, who had 20. As a member of the team’s expanded September roster, he was a game-changer, pinch-running Cincinnati into the postseason.

The wheels, obviously, are never going to be the question with Hamilton. The rest of his game is not so eye-popping, though there’s still plenty of promise. Reports indicate his transition to defense in center field has gone well, as his speed has helped overcome his lack of experience and polish. At worst, he should be an average defender out there, and his ceiling is potentially higher — again, mostly because of his wheels.

The most pressing questions surround Hamilton’s ability with the stick — specifically, his ability to get to first base. As they say, you can’t steal first. It’s here our experiment begins.

The essential question is this — how good of a hitter does Billy Hamilton have to be to establish himself as a big league regular? His ability on the basepaths is unlike anything we’ve may have ever seen, but how much can his fleet feet make up for any offensive deficiencies?

One thought I’ve heard a few pundits, broadcasters and other fans mention in regard to Hamilton is that, essentially, any single he hits may as well count as a double. This isn’t entirely true. Occasionally, Hamilton is going to be blocked by other baserunners. Plus, as good a runner as he is, he’s still not perfect*. But there is something to the sentiment.

*Hamilton swiped 75 bases in 90 tries at Triple-A, an 83 percent success rate.

The argument is an interesting one, despite its flaws, and it’s something we can test with relative ease. For the sake of our experiment, let’s take Hamilton’s 2013 numbers at Triple-A and use them as the baseline:

Hamilton 2013 unadjusted

For argument’s sake, let’s say Hamilton replicates those numbers as a Major Leaguer in 2014. What kind of center fielder is that? The best statistical comparison from 2013 is Michael Bourn, who finished with a .263/.316/.360 slash line. Bourn’s .676 OPS was dead last among qualified center fielders, not exactly a promising comparison.

Of course, Bourn was not the worst center fielder in the game — due primarily to baserunning and defensive contributions, Fangraphs.com’s WAR formula estimated Bourn as a 2.0-win player this season. Granted, that still places him 17th out of 18 qualifying center fielders, but a two-win season is nothing to sneeze at. In fact, that’s generally considered the threshold for an average Major Leaguer.

Hamilton, like Bourn, figures to contribute more with his glove and legs than his bat. In an attempt to capture that, what follows is an intentional fudging of Hamilton’s numbers. For each of Hamilton’s 90 stolen base attempts, I’ve subtracted a single from his stat line. For each of his 75 successful steals, I’ve added a double. The resulting stat line defines a very different, albeit more productive, offensive player.

Hamilton 2013 Numbers

The first line is his unadjusted 2013 numbers. The bottom line includes his numbers once they’ve been adjusted for our “steals equal doubles” theory. The experiment obviously creates a very different profile — it looks like something of Pedro Alvarez-light, really.

The new OPS would land Hamilton 13th among qualifying center fielders in 2013, right between Desmond Jennings and Alejandro De Aza. Both of those players are above-average center fielders, though it warrants mentioning that each stole 20 bases, so some of their value comes from steals we’ve already depleted from Hamilton’s “value.”

How good does Hamilton need to be to become, say, one of the game’s five best center fielders? Perhaps if he replicated his excellent Double-A numbers from 2012? Here are those, both unadjusted and adjusted for our “steals equal doubles” theory*:

Hamilton 2012 Numbers

*In 2013, Hamilton ran 90 times with 101 singles — an 89.1 percent steal rate. I used that same rate while decreasing his singles above and also used his 83 percent success rate to calculate completed “stolen base doubles,” so to speak. For those curious, that equated to about 29 steals in 34 tries.

An .872 OPS would place Hamilton fourth among qualifying center fielders in 2013, right between Shin-Soo Choo and Carlos Gomez. That, obviously, would make him a very, very good ballplayer.

Obviously, this experiment isn’t a perfect predictor of what Hamilton’s value will/could be. Not every stolen base takes a runner from first to second, and the value of a “single-then-steal” sequence isn’t necessarily equal to the value of a straight double, either*. This is, as I said, simply a little thought experiment.

*For one, the hitter who follows Hamilton will have to take a pitch while Hamilton steals; and if that pitch is a strike, suddenly, that hitter is at a disadvantage. Also, straight doubles are certainly more beneficial if Hamilton is hitting with runners on base.

All that said, one thing I think we can take away is that, in order to provide elite or near-elite value to the Reds in the future, Hamilton is going to have to perform better than his 2013 Triple-A numbers. Some small improvements likely would guarantee he’s worth a starting position. Some big ones — like replication of his 2012 Double-A performance — would make him a star.

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