Billy Hamilton’s season was predictable

Billy Hamilton began the season with a lot of pressure to fill some pretty big shoes worn by his Reds’ center field predecessor. Hamilton gave the Reds everything they could have asked for with his glove and his legs in the field. He ranked first among all center fielders in defense according to Fangraphs.com. Unfortunately, his offense did not live up to the fielding. The sad thing was that the offensive season for Hamilton was predictable.

I wrote a piece before the season began that for the experiment of letting Choo go via free agency so that Billy Hamilton could lead off was fraught with problems. I wrote at the time that Hamilton would need to bat at least .280 to give his team some sort of offensive boost. He did not. Hamilton did not even come close.

Let’s put his offensive season in perspective. There were 75 batters in Major League Baseball in 2014 that came to the plate more than 600 times. Billy Hamilton was 73rd among those 75 in times on base (walks + hits + HBP). For further perspective, Jeter, in his swan song season was belittled all season for batting second while hitting so poorly. Jeter got on base fourteen more times than Billy Hamilton.

Choo, who had a vastly disappointing season with the Rangers, only played in 123 games compared to Hamilton’s 152 games and Choo got on base four more times than Billy Hamilton did. Among all center fielders in baseball, only B.J. Upton put up a worse offensive runs rating.

Billy Hamilton got on base 176 times in 152 games. But that’s not the worst of it. While Hamilton did steal 56 bases, he was thrown out an MLB leading 23 times. While that is a 71% success rate, those 23 times caught meant that Hamilton was only available to score not 176 times, but only 153 times.

When Hamilton was available on base, then he had a good rate of scoring as he scored 72 times or 47% of the times he was available on base. If say, he could have been available on base 200 times, he would have scored 94 times.

If the season would have ended at the All Star Break, then Hamilton would have exceeded my “goal” for him before the season started. At the All Star Break, Hamilton had a triple-slash line of: .285/.319/.423. His 109 OPS+ at the time would have made him (when combined with his fielding) just as valuable as Choo was the year before.

Unfortunately, Hamilton fell off the tracks after the break and went: .200/.254/.257 the rest of the way. Coincidentally (or not), his drop off coincided with the Reds’ collapse as the team was 51-44 at the break and 25-42 after it.

You would expect that someone with Billy Hamilton’s speed would have a better BABIP than the .304 he compiled in 2014. But it is easier to understand when 37% of his batted balls were fly balls and a third of those were popups to the infield. His ground ball rate is somewhat inflated since he had 52 bunt attempts (with a .326 success rate) and led to a 1.11 ground ball to fly ball rate. Hamilton’s speed would seem to benefit from hitting more ground balls.

Of course, Hamilton’s strikeout rate of over 19% means that almost twenty percent of his at bats cannot get him on base at all. His plate discipline improved to a 28.8% O-swing rate and you should expect him to get better with that rate as he continues on in his career.

Fangraphs.com and Baseball-reference.com vary greatly in the value assigned to Billy Hamilton’s season. B-R gave Hamilton a 2.5 rWAR and Fangraphs.com came in a full win higher at 3.5. That one win means a great deal when a win is worth about $6 million on the open market. Baseball Prospectus splits the difference with a 3.1 WARP.

There is no doubt that Billy Hamilton helped the Cincinnati Reds greatly in the field and made him a valuable player despite his total lack of offensive contribution. The Reds left Hamilton in the lead off spot despite his putting up numbers that made him unsuitable for that position. The trouble is that the only good on-base guys for the Reds are their three best hitters, Votto, Frazier and Mesoraco. You want those guys in the middle of the lineup. The Reds were 14th of 15 NL teams in team on-base percentage.

Billy Hamilton’s final offensive season was not dramatically different than his Triple-A numbers in 2013. Perhaps this is who he is. The Reds will need to think about that and make some decisions. Hamiton’s fielding make him worth having out in center field every day. But with his offensive production, he should be batting eighth in the lineup. Those decisions and the outcomes make 2015 an interesting season in the career path of Billy Hamilton.

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