Billy Hamilton played thirteen games at the Big League level in 2013. And yet the accumulated 19.4% of the Cincinnati Reds’ stolen bases for the season. So I get why the Reds are excited about having the rookie leading off and creating havoc for the other teams. The question is whether he will get on base enough to make that big of an impact.
Shin-Soo Choo got on base an incredible 300 times last season (162 hits, 112 walks and 26 HBPs). And while I believe Choo had a career year (read: outlier), of all the projections for Hamilton I have looked at, the highest projected number of times on base for Billy Hamilton was by ZiPS at 192 times.
And even with ZiPS being the most generous of the systems with times on base, that system only gave him an on-base percentage of .319. Such a low on-base percentage simply is not high enough.
Let’s look at it another way. Of all the times the Reds got on base last season, 34.4% of those base runners scored. Choo’s rate was higher at 35.7%. If we apply even Choo’s higher rate (by the quality of the hitters behind him), then if Hamilton gets on base 192 times, he will score roughly 69 times, or 38 times less than Choo did a year ago.
The cast around Hamilton for the Reds is pretty much the same as what was in their lineup a year ago. Todd Frazier and Brandon Phillips might have better years. Or they might not. Even if they do, it will be difficult to make up for 38 less runs scored from the top of your lineup.
Billy Hamilton played 502 games in the minor leagues. For the sum total of those games, he batted .280 which gave him a .350 OBP. That would definitely work for the Reds if he could do that. The one problem is that he stumbled at the highest level of Triple-A. In 504 plate appearances in Triple-A, his OBP was .308. That definitely will not cut it for the Reds. I believe that is what troubled the projection systems the most. Well…computers are not troubled, they just spit out stuff based on past history.
Of course, baseball is not just about hitting and scoring runs. There is also preventing runs scored by the other teams. There is much better news there concerning Billy Hamilton. Everyone acknowledges that Choo was miscast as a center fielder last season and his defensive numbers showed the problem.
According to the defensive numbers, Choo cost his team between 1.5 and 1.9 wins last season. Hamilton could go as high as the positive number above replacement. In other words, his defensive could mean a three-win swing over Choo just by chasing down outs in the outfield.
Comparing Hamilton to Choo of last season is probably not fair. Choo had such a good year that most lead-off batters would pale in comparison. Choo was worth 4.2 rWAR or 5.2 fWAR (whichever your preference) while the most generous projection for Hamilton is a 2.5 WAR. In other words, his defense will not make up for the lack of offense.
Billy Hamilton will make things exciting on the base paths. He will have spectacular moments there and in the field. The question here is not any of those things. The question is whether he will get on base enough times to be the lead-off batter.
The problem for the Reds is that there is no one else to bat at the top of the order. The team’s best on-base guys are Joey Votto, and to a lesser extent, Jay Bruce. You want those two guys batting third and fourth. Nobody else on the team gets on base nearly enough.
Projections are often wrong and Billy Hamilton could be a break-out star. But for that to happen, he needs to bat .280 and get on base at a .340 clip at least. Either way, it will be one of the most fascinating things to watch this season.