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September 26, 2013

BP Unfiltered

More on Billy Hamilton's First Career Caught Stealing

by Ben Lindbergh

Daniel Rathman wrote a bit about Billy Hamilton’s first career caught stealing in today’s edition of What You Need to know. I’d like to break it down a bit further.

In my article about Hamilton last week, I wrote, “…if he gets a good jump, it’s almost impossible to 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.” Later that day, J.J. Cooper posted a piece at Baseball America in which he (and some scouts he spoke to) timed Hamilton to determine exactly how difficult it is. Based on his conclusion, “almost impossible” was about right.

Hamilton, according to Cooper’s timing, can get from first to second consistently in 3.1 seconds. A slide-stepping pitcher can throw the ball home in 1.1-1.2 seconds, and an average catcher can get the ball to the middle infielder receiving the throw in 2.0 seconds. Add those times up, and the math comes out in Hamilton’s favor. To have any hope of catching him when he gets a good jump, you need a pitcher with a fast delivery and a strong-armed catcher who gets rid of the ball quickly. Not only that, but both the pitch and the throw have to come close to hitting their targets, which is made more difficult by the fact that both ends of the battery are aware that they have to rush.

So how did Hamilton get caught by a catcher making his second major-league start? Let’s take a closer look. Here’s the video from the Mets broadcast:

And here’s a GIF from the Cincinnati feed:

Daisuke Matsuzaka, who’s notoriously slow to the plate, takes 1.3 seconds to get the ball to catcher Juan Centeno, though he does at least manage to deliver a good pitch to throw on. Centeno makes up for the fraction of a second Matsuzaka surrendered with an impressive 1.78 pop time, showing smooth footwork and an accurate arm; as Daniel mentioned, the 23-year-old threw out 56 percent of attempted thieves in Triple-A this season, so this isn’t a fluke. Add up the two times, and you get 3.08 seconds: a good showing, but one that would still produce a bang-bang play given Hamilton’s typical pace.

Except that this time, Hamilton doesn’t make it to second in his usual 3.0-3.1 seconds. It takes him 3.2. He doesn’t get a bad jump, but he doesn’t get a great one, the kind that Jason Cole described to me as “like he gets shot out of a cannon.” Maybe he’s still slightly winded from busting it down to first base in 3.75 seconds about a minute before. Maybe he’s slowed ever so slightly by the pickoff throw Matsuzaka made before the pitch. He’s still blazingly fast, but whatever the reason, he’s missing the extra gear that puts him in a small group of players whose skill has the potential to break baseball.

Hamilton succeeded on 83.3 percent of his attempts in Triple-A this season, and 80.7 percent between High-A and Double-A in 2012. Those are great rates, especially considering that he never had the element of surprise. But he still got caught by minor leaguers nearly one in five times, and he’s going to get caught by big-league batteries, too. It’s worth remembering that while everything has to go right for a team to catch him, even Hamilton doesn’t have that much margin for error.

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:  Billy Hamilton,  Caught Stealing

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