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September 19, 2013

Overthinking It

Billy Hamilton and Getting Excited Responsibly

by Ben Lindbergh

The Astros and Reds played 13 innings of ugly, beautiful baseball last night. Daniel Rathman chronicled the lapses in judgment, failures to execute, and tactical mistakes that prolonged the contest between the two teams in today’s What You Need to Know, so you can go read about those there. Ultimately, though, the crimes against baseball that were Brandon Phillips bunting, Dusty Baker saving Aroldis Chapman for a save situation, and Jose Altuve’s TOOTBLAN will be forgiven, forgotten, or lumped in with other managerial mistakes and baserunning blunders. Billy Hamilton will be what we remember.

Hamilton, making his first career start and batting ninth, went 3-for-4 with two walks and four stolen bases. The steals were the most eye-catching part of his performance. As I wrote in today’s Lineup Card, Hamilton’s instincts on the bases aren’t unparalleled, but his speed and the inevitability of his attempts set him apart from other thieves. Each of his appearances on base is an event, because everyone watching knows he’s going to go; as Buster Olney wrote recently, Hamilton’s pinch-running appearances should be preceded by an entrance song, since they’re at least as exciting and game-altering as a closer coming in. Hamilton has failed to attempt a steal in only one of his 10 times on base, and then only because Shin-Soo Choo singled him home almost immediately.

It’s worth watching the four steals from Wednesday together, if you haven’t already:

The swipe that stands out is the third, which came on a 94-mph pitchout to Carlos Corporan, who had thrown out 10 of 35 runners before Hamilton made him look helpless.

The throw was wide, but its inaccuracy could have been the product of the pressure Hamilton’s speed puts on a catcher. When you watch Hamilton, it’s hard to believe that he could ever be caught. We know that it happens; even minor-league batteries threw him out 17.5 percent of the time. (Tim Raines, by the way, was thrown out on 17.8 percent of his attempts before his first promotion.) But if he gets a good jump, it’s almost impossible for a team to deliver a pitch to home plate and fire it back to second in time to get him. Hamilton makes it look like 95 feet might’ve been a better choice for the distance between bases.

But we knew before that four-steal performance that Hamilton could swipe second at will. What we weren’t sure of was whether he could do it when he had to get to first himself instead of starting out there. So while the steals were exciting, the hits and walks were the most encouraging indicator that Hamilton could be more than a pair of substitute legs.

Hamilton’s first hit was a double; he settled for singles on the next two, though the third could have been extra bases had it not hit the third-base bag. In each case, Hamilton saw a pitch from Brad Peacock that got plenty of plate and lined or slapped it the other way. He also drew walks in the ninth and 13th.

The pinch-running novelty act was nice, but this was the sort of performance that pushed Hamilton up prospect lists and made fantasy owners in keeper leagues salivate. A speedster who plays a premium position merits a roster spot more than, say, a second situational lefty, even if he never picks up a bat. But a guy who gets on base consistently, racks up steals, and plays a decent center? That’s a star, and the sort of player who makes his team your default first choice on mlb.tv.

As the hit and steal counts climbed, Twitter went wild with fun facts (He already has more steals than anyone on the Cardinals or Tigers!) and historical trivia (He’s the only player since 1920 to have four steals in his first start!) After one full game, the internet was in on Hamilton. Maybe he should be starting every game, David Pinto suggested, saying, “Somehow, I think the Reds offense would be better with Hamilton, Shin-Soo Choo, and Joey Votto batting 1-2-3.”

Well, maybe. But allow me to be the wet blanket. It’s not that I want to be one, because I was as spellbound as anyone. But the vision of Hamilton we were offered on Wednesday might have been a mirage, or at least the rosiest possible picture.

In 123 Triple-A games this season, Hamilton never reached base five times. Only once did he get to first base four times. Hamilton hit .256/.308/.343, which, well, wasn’t good. Some of that might have been bad luck; Hamilton had a .310 BABIP, well below what you’d expect from a player with his profile (and well below what he’d BABIPed at lower levels). But it also could have come from weak contact. As Jason Parks noted when Hamilton was called up, “his overall offensive game was one-dimensional and pitchers with a plan could eat his lunch,” cautioning that “the approach can be problematic and the swing itself has holes that upper-level pitching has been able to exploit.”

Hamilton showed that he could make lousy pitchers pay for leaving lifeless offerings in the zone, which is something, but he still has a lot left to prove. The Astros, after all, have a way of making their opponents look better than they are: the league as a whole has hit .272/.348/.448 against Houston. The three pitchers Hamilton faced on Wednesday have combined for a 5.17 ERA in 102 2/3 innings this season, with a 1.65 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Josh Fields, who handed him his first walk, couldn’t throw him a strike:

And Jorge De Leon, who awarded his second, has recorded more walks than strikeouts since his own recent arrival in the AL. Hamilton may have been making his first major-league start, but he was still facing Triple-A pitching.

After Hamilton’s second-inning double, Major League Baseball’s Twitter account proclaimed,

Okay, we know he can hit. But can he keep hitting? Installing a player whose OBP barely topped .300 in the International League in the leadoff slot sounds like the sort of reflexive, bat-him-high-because-he’s-a-speedster move we would normally criticize Dusty Baker for making. We’ve bashed Baker for batting Zack Cozart second for much of the season; as fun as he is to watch, the current incarnation of Hamilton might not be a much better on-base guy. Hamilton didn't look great against Chia-Jen Lo, a hard thrower who came close to hitting his targets and struck him out on three pitches in the 10th:

Granted, the Reds have gotten little out of Ryan Ludwick, Derrick Robinson, Chris Heisey, and Xavier Paul, so it’s not as if Hamilton has a high bar to clear, especially after factoring in the defensive upgrade he’d represent in center. But as difficult as it was to watch Hamilton sparkplug Cincinnati and not see the next Ty Cobb, we should try to temper our short-term expectations for the just-turned-23-year-old. Twenty-six of the 30 pitches Hamilton has faced so far have been fastballs, so we have a good idea of what the gameplan is going to be: bust him inside with heat and try to knock the bat out of his hands. It didn’t work on Wednesday, but that doesn’t mean it won’t work for more effective arms.

I hope Hamilton flourishes. I want a full season of what we saw last night. But we probably shouldn’t count on that success starting now.

Ben Lindbergh is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Ben's other articles. You can contact Ben by clicking here

Related Content:  Cincinnati Reds,  Billy Hamilton

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