There’s no questioning the excitement of Billy Hamilton. I mean, he did this, for crying out loud. In 22 games, he has 9 stolen bases in 12 attempts, and while it doesn’t touch his ridiculous number of 13 steals in 13 games from 2013, he has speed that can’t be touched at the Major League level. It’s something that comes around maybe every 50 years.
There’s just one problem with Billy Hamilton: he can’t hit. For all of his athletic prowess, he still hasn’t figured out how to hit Major League pitching. He is hitting a paltry .231/.265/.295 through 22 games, while having just over a 6:1 K/BB ratio. That, as they say, is not good.
The problem gets magnified when you see that Hamilton has done basically all of this from the leadoff spot in the batting order. Of his 85 plate appearances this year, all but one have come from the top of the order, and when you look at his OBP for leadoff hitters that have 30 or more plate appearances this year, he ranks 33rd out of 38 qualified players with a .256 mark. For reference, Brett Gardner ranks 31st with a .300 OBP. Suffice to say, this isn’t good.
He’s also 32nd in K/BB ratio, 31st in isolated power (slugging minus batting average) and a ghastly 35th in wRC+ (weighted runs created adjusted for park factors). He has not been even a below average ballplayer, and when you add up his offense and defense to go along with his top-flight running ability, he’s not even replacement level, with Fangraphs having him at 0.0 and Baseball-Reference saying he’s actually below it at -0.2.
This is yet another place were stats and scouting intersect. Hamilton has the instincts and athletic ability of a prototypical leadoff man, with a 3 second time to first base and the ability to turn even routine singles into doubles at points. The problem is that for him to take advantage of that prodigious speed, he needs to be able to get on base.
It’s not exactly rocket science, all this information. The stats are easy to see that Hamilton is not producing the way the Reds hoped he would. Which begs the question of whether Hamilton is a leadoff hitter in the first place.
Now, Hamilton isn’t the only leadoff hitter struggling. Guys like Gardner, Jason Heyward, Everth Cabrera, and Denard Span are all struggling a few weeks into the season, but there are things with those other players that speak to them being able to bounce back a bit. Heyward’s 12.2% walk rate for one. Denard Span’s .267 BABIP for another.
With Hamilton, very few things point to him being in a rut due to bad luck. His BABIP sits at .300, right at the magic mark. He only hits line drives at a 21.2% rate while lifting fly balls 36.5% of the time. The ground ball rate at 42.3% actually helps him due to his speed, but when you have no pop and hit so many fly balls, those are easy outs for the opposing team to make.
Pitchers are also catching on, throwing him fastballs only 62.5% of the time (Down from 70% in the few pitches he saw last season – Mike Trout sits at 62.3%, for comparison) and making him adjust to the top-level off speed pitches you’ll see in the Major Leagues. With him having only 3 walks so far in those 85 plate appearances, it’s easy to see that he’s not adjusting to even early-season things a pitcher does.
It’s starting to become a trend to wonder whether or not Hamilton should be a leadoff hitter, but Hamilton has to make the necessary adjustments. To begin with, he needs to work on pitch recognition and lay off the off speed pitches that have frustrated him early on. He also needs to work on flattening out his swing just a little bit, as any ball on a semi-flat or downward trajectory works to his advantage. These seem like easy fixes to suggest, but Hamilton knows by now that he’s not gonna have the best pitchers on the planet give him exactly what he wants. So he needs to make the necessary changes to be successful.
The Reds can be somewhat patient with him considering the scope of the NL Central, with Milwaukee’s hot start and Pittsburgh’s slow start likely to return both teams back toward the middle of the pack with both Cincinnati and St. Louis. But what Hamilton does between now and the end of May is going to be key to how the Reds perceive him going forward. Hamilton has the potential to be one of the most unique weapons in baseball today, but unless he can make the adjustments, there is no way that the Reds can continue to have him as their leadoff hitter.