“This is the stupidest thing I’ve heard in my life.”
– Billy Hamilton on the following proposal
GOODYEAR, Ariz. — There has always been some debate about where to bat Billy Hamilton in the lineup.
He has the world-class speed that managers traditionally prize out of a leadoff hitter. Hamilton, for example, was the fastest man in the game by some measures in 2016 and has trailed only Byron Buxton (30.2 feet/second) in Statcast’s “sprint speed” each of the last two seasons.
The problem, of course, is the rate at which he gets (or doesn’t get) on base. Hamilton recorded a .299 OBP last season, 11th worst amongst qualified hitters. His career mark is almost precisely the same (.298). In the modern era of lineup construction, avoiding outs is regarded as a greater asset for leadoff hitters than speed alone.
While Hamilton has made the vast majority of his career plate appearances (1,651) at the top of the Cincinnati lineup, his inability to get on base regularly has prevented him from maximizing the value of his legs. And though he is penciled in as the club’s leadoff hitter again, there remains some debate about where he should hit.
But what if there was a way to better maximize Hamilton’s speed?
Not all of this author’s ideas would be categorized as “good” — an observation that is particularly true of the ideas to follow. The hope is that at least some of them have merit. In any case, one shouldn’t hesitate to propose an idea, to ask a question, out of the fear of looking foolish.
With that in mind, I made my way last Monday morning through the Reds’ clubhouse, looking for Billy Hamilton. The Reds outfielder was seated at his locker in the modern, high-ceiling space that serves as the team’s spring home in Goodyear, Arizona.
Morning spring clubhouses are sleepy. Doors often open to reporters before 8 a.m. While the regular season is frequently a second-shift schedule, the spring is different. Coffee-fueled commutes begin before sunrise. When one arrives at the park, the players are often subdued.
It was this quiet environment that perhaps allowed an interesting — at least to this author — and possibly bad idea to be heard and a group debate to develop.
When I introduced myself and began my line of questioning, Hamilton mistakenly thought I was going to be another reporter prying into his struggles and lineup position.
“It’s not my choice, man,” Hamilton said. “I’ve batted ninth before. As a player, you don’t really have a say-so… As a player, you don’t go to coach and say, ‘I want to bat here, I want to bat there.’ There’s not a lot of back-and-forth dialogue. Of course, I want to bat leadoff.’”
I followed by inquiring about whether he has ever been asked about playing a super-sub, utility role.
“Who wants to be a super sub?” Hamilton retorted. “You are asking me why I suck, basically.”
“No, no,” this author explained. I wasn’t suggesting limiting Hamilton to a lone pinch-running appearance late in the game or entering as a defensive replacement. Rather, I was curious if the Reds had ever discussed using him earlier in the game as a pinch-runner and then leaving him in the game, in essence to artificially increase his on-base percentage and give his speed more opportunities to make an impact. Of course, the starting pitcher and, say, Joey Votto would be immune to such a strategy — and perhaps the catcher, too — but any other player could be swapped out for Hamilton and his legs.
Would Hamilton be open to this?
By his expression, it seemed clear that he had never been approached with this idea, never considered it, and was possibly wondering who had issued me a press credential.
“You need help, Billy?!” shouted someone from across the room, apparently eavesdropping or at least reading his teammate’s body language.
By this point, Hamilton’s locker-room neighbor, Scooter Gennett, had become interested. Seated in a swivel chair, Gennett turned his attention up and away from his smartphone toward the conversation between this author and a bewildered Hamilton.
“What [Sawchik] is trying to say is — say, I get on in the first inning, you pinch run for my spot and then you stay in the game,” Gennett said. “You could still go 0-for-3 at that point but at least you’re on base once.”
Said Hamilton: “This is the stupidest thing I’ve heard in my life.”
I defended the idea: “This would be good for you, I think.”
I attempted to get specific. If the Reds were to replace the first non-Votto, non-pitcher to reach base, I explained, Hamilton would enter most games by the second inning. The strategy would eliminate roughly 20% of his plate appearances (and the times he reached base in those PAs, as well), but he would start on base an 140 additional times as a pinch-runner — that is, once per game extrapolated over the share of games in which he played last season. Using that quick math, the net gain for his 2017 campaign would have been 100 extra appearances as a baserunner over the course of the season. So, instead of being on base 192 times, as he was in 2017, Hamilton would have been on base 292 times.
Extrapolating Hamilton’s 2017 performance to account for the additional opportunities on base, his stolen-base total rises to 89 (from the actual 59), his runs scored to 128 (from 85), and his stolen-base runs above average from 5.9 to 9.0. This would be great for fantasy players and Hamilton himself.
Would it be so good for the Reds? That’s more difficult to decipher. The loss of roster flexibility would probably make it a non-starter for many managers in today’s game, and it could also remove a productive player from the lineup early in games. Moreover, more position-player depth and versatility would be required from the bench.
“You just lost a whole player for one time on base,” Hamilton notes.
True. And a significant obstacle.
Perhaps there could be another way, like saving Hamilton for a higher-leverage baserunning situation in the middle or later innings. There’s some logic to that, except that it would also limit his defensive chances in center field, as well. Hamilton was a three-win player in 2016 and 2014 due largely to defense.
By this time, a curious Devin Mesoraco had approached and joined in the conversation.
“You’d be an automatic run,” Mesoraco said.
There’s some truth to that idea, as well.
Last season, non-Hamilton baserunners scored 28% of the time for the Reds. Hamilton, however, scored 44% of the time he reached base. So with an additional 100 baserunning opportunities last season for Hamilton, he would have created around 16 additional runs via baserunning for the Reds. Only Votto and Eugenio Suarez project to be more valuable than Hamilton this season for the Reds among position players. So Hamilton wouldn’t be threatening to replace many players superior to his overall production.
“But I’d have to wait, wait, wait [on the bench],” Hamilton said. “I don’t like it.”
Mesoraco then added another thought: “It also depends on how long our starter pitches…”
By this time another Reds teammate, catcher Stuart Turner, approached, joined the group discussion, and offered a suggestion. Turner noted the strategy could be more viable for the Reds when they played as the visiting team. In that case, the Reds could bat anyone — even Mesoraco — in the first inning and replace him with Hamilton, essentially leveraging more offense into the game early and then immediately trading it in for speed and defense.
Hamilton still wasn’t impressed.
Said Gennett: “C’mon, Billy!”
Hamilton wouldn’t buy in. Maybe such a strategy would require a player with even more baserunning efficiency. Maybe such an extreme practice requires a 26th — or 27th — roster spot. Maybe Hamilton is right and it’s an awful idea. But it at least got a conversation started on a quiet morning in Goodyear.