September 3, 2013
The Situation: With September upon us, a wave of young talent will be sampling the major-league level for the first time. With catalytic speed on both sides of the ball, Hamilton was a safe bet to get the call from the Reds. And as Sam Miller pointed out around this time last year, his speed could make a marginal difference over the last month of the regular season.
Background: Hamilton was a second-round pick in the 2009 draft, choosing baseball over his other athletic interests, which included both football and basketball. Hamilton was viewed by most as a raw athlete with remarkable speed, but his baseball skills were questioned after a disappointing professional debut in the Gulf Coast League. While the sample was small, the bat looked very light, a concern given the fact that Hamilton’s physical prowess closely resembled that of a high school track star rather than a professional baseball player.
His first full season was an eye-opener for most scouts, as Hamilton flashed legit offensive skills beyond his 80-grade speed, putting the bat to the ball in the Pioneer League and moving up prospect lists as a result. Hamilton had a respectable full-season campaign in 2011, holding his own in the pitcher-friendly Midwest League, stealing 103 bases and earning the distinction of the fastest man in baseball. His defensive chops at shortstop weren’t winning over scouts, and his bat still raised some red flags, but the speed was so overwhelming that his prospect stock soared.
Last year was Hamilton’s explosion, the season during which his status became ubiquitous and his speed became folklore. In 132 minor-league games, Hamilton stole an insane 155 bases, creating must-see moments in every game and pushing himself into the top tier of prospects in the minors. In addition to the record-breaking base-swipes, Hamilton continued to refine his offensive skills, and he looked like the Reds’ leadoff man of the future, a throwback to the speedsters found in the 1980s, the type of player that brings you into focus the moment they enter the game.
After a positional shift to center field and an aggressive promotion to Triple-A, Hamilton struggled in 2013, with inconsistent contact and a loose approach at the plate. The speed was still his saving grace, allowing him to turn weak contact into base hits and giving him elite range on defense, but his overall offensive game was one-dimensional and pitchers with a plan could eat his lunch.
Scouting Report: It begins and ends with Hamilton’s historic speed, which inflated his prospect status to the point of absurdity. While I certainly respect his wheels and the catalytic actions they bring to his overall game, Hamilton’s bat and approach never won me over and I was hesitant to go too big on his future as a result. From both sides of the plate, Hamilton shows bat speed and the ability to drive the baseball, but the approach can be problematic and the swing itself has holes that upper-level pitching has been able to exploit. Hamilton has a tendency to lunge at the ball, with his hands and his hips operating on different timing schedules. He generates bat speed with his quick hands and whippy path into the ball, but his power eyes can cause him to come up under the ball too much, limiting his contact and taking away his legs once the ball is in play. Hamilton needs to keep the ball on the ground in order to keep his legs on the field, but his approach can break down in this regard and he tries to drive the ball like a middle-of-the-order hitter instead of a table-setter. This is especially true from the right side of the plate, where Hamilton’s lack of patience keeps him in bad counts and limits his ability to reach base.
His defense in center continues to improve, and he has the speed to recover from bad reads or routes. His arm will play at the position, but he is still working on developing his outfield arm, which involves getting carry behind the ball and throwing on a different plane. The defense will be fine. The speed will be fine. The bat might not be fine. Hamilton has the hand-eye coordination and the bat speed to make things happen at the plate, especially when routine grounders can turn into singles, which can then turn into de facto triples once he reaches base. At his best, Hamilton can be a first-division player with game-changing speed and pole-to-pole range at an up-the-middle position. But it all depends on the bat and his approach, and without more maturity and game refinement, Hamilton could be more a glorified role player, a specialty pinch-runner rather than a prototypical leadoff man. —Jason Parks
Fantasy Impact: There is no question that the 2013 season has not quite gone as planned for both Hamilton and the fantasy owners who have been stashing him for five months. However, as I've been saying all season, he does not need very much time to make his presence felt in fantasy leagues. Even coming into a crowded outfield situation—he's unlikely to displace Jay Bruce, Shin-Soo Choo, or Ryan Ludwick unless there's an injury—he could still steal 15 bases the rest of the way even if he only gets around 20-30 at-bats.
There's one reason and one reason only that we're interested in Hamilton in the short-term, and we all know what that is. And even in a part-time (or even reserve) role, he has impact potential in stolen bases. I'd say that the rest is just gravy, but in reality it is more like gravy you found in a misplaced boat the Sunday after Thanksgiving. He's just not going to get the playing time over the course of September (barring something unforeseen) to put up even below average counting stats. And on the same note, it likely won't matter whether he hits .320 or .220 to your fantasy team, as you won't even notice the effect of either on your bottom line given his sparse at-bats.
For keeper/dynasty leagues, Hamilton is still an elite fantasy prospect. However, his status is built more on upside than on safety. If Hamilton flops, it will be because he can't hit enough for his game-changing speed to change games. But if he does hit enough, watch out. There hasn't been a player who's stolen 100 bases in the major leagues since 1987 and only one season of more than 70 steals this century. It's a big deal. —Bret Sayre
Jason Parks is an author of Baseball Prospectus. Follow @ProfessorParks