An Interesting and Bad Suggestion for Billy Hamilton

“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.

A Cleveland native, FanGraphs writer Travis Sawchik is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, Big Data Baseball. He also contributes to The Athletic Cleveland, and has written for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Sawchik.

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5 years ago

You have got to do something about the constant redirecting to ads. I’ve won more free Amazon coupons than anyone in history. It makes the mobile site borderline unusable. I have heard others complain about this, so I know it’s not just my phone. I love this site, and I gladly pay $20 for the amazing content. Please help a brother out on mobile!

5 years ago
Reply to  phoenix2042

Same also baseball reference has that problem.

5 years ago
Reply to  joe14

have said it before, will say it again: Download “Brave” for iOS. Works basically the same as chrome, but blocks all that annoying garbage (and does a lot of privacy protection things too)

5 years ago
Reply to  phoenix2042

I’ve been outed at work with a loud audible “congratulations” way too many times! In a panic I hit back and it just makes the voice repeat. #firstworldproblems

5 years ago
Reply to  phoenix2042

So I finally figured out what the hell is going on with that, courtesy of another site.

Here it is:

“We can’t sell every spot available for advertising on and to our local advertisers. When we have extra spots available, we let ad serving companies know, and those companies put the spaces out for bid. The business with the highest bid wins, and its ad is displayed on the web page. This is all done nearly instantaneously using computers and strings of computer coding.”

“Sometimes bad actors slip through cracks in the networks that place the ads and add malicious code. That code takes over your phone and displays the popup saying something like, “You’ve been selected for a chance to get the $1000 Amazon Gift Card, Apple iPhone, etc.” ”

Apparently this is something that is affecting a lot of sites, but Fangraphs needs to get on the ball and get this taken care of.

David Appelman
5 years ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

We obviously don’t want these ads, but given that this is an issue which plagues much of the entire industry, it is extremely difficult for us to “get on the ball and get this taken care of.”

Unfortunately, with our mid sized audience we do not wield significant leverage in the 100 billion dollar ad industry.

All of the ads on FanGraphs are progmatic ads supplied by an ad exchange.

At some point Apple in particular will need to “get on the ball”. They refuse to put measures in to block redirects like this in Safari, where Google has taken a number of steps to prevent such behavior in Chrome.

Google is not entirely blameless either. About 50% of the advertising on FanGraphs comes from Googles own ad exchange which doesn’t do a good enough job of filtering out ads like these.

Given our reliance on advertising, it is not realistic for us to remove advertising entirely for non ad-free members either. As a result we are caught in a bit of a bind.

I believe this issue will be fixed eventually, but I’ve personally been surprised by how long this current bout of ads has lasted. It really cropped up around early December and has not stopped. It is somewhat unusual for these to last this long, so the bad advertisers must be a few steps ahead this time in subverting ad network safeguards.

The whole situation is annoying for everyone.

5 years ago
Reply to  David Appelman

Thanks for the response.

5 years ago
Reply to  David Appelman

I believe Google AdSense allows you to block certain ads and domains. I have never done much with it, but I have seen the functionality.

David Appelman
5 years ago
Reply to  RonnieDobbs

Adsense as an advertising product is policed much better than Google AdX, which is Google’s ad exchange product.

We don’t run any Adsense ads on FanGraphs currently, because the rates on Adsense we found pretty terrible. There is an option to block domains or specific ads on AdX, though the bad ads are hidden inside other ads and there’s really no way to tell which ads have the redirects in them, so unfortunately this doesn’t really work.

5 years ago
Reply to  David Appelman

It sounds like the trade-off is that AdX pays you better for more obtrusive ads. Adsense does pay poorly. In any case, thanks for the reply.

David Appelman
5 years ago
Reply to  RonnieDobbs

This is not exactly true. Most of the obtrusive ads actually sit at a very low price level, but it’s impossible to figure out what that price level is. We have experimented some with floor pricing to try and get rid of these ads with some success. We just don’t have a great solution yet.

Grim Spontano
5 years ago
Reply to  David Appelman

Since you’re talking about it, I was a paid member of Fangraphs for some months until I finally grew frustrated enough that my phone wouldn’t auto log in most of the time and I would still see ads on mobile. The content is worth it but I didn’t receive the benefits of the subscription most of the time. Maybe an app for paid folks?

David Appelman
5 years ago
Reply to  Grim Spontano

If you were checking the stay logged in box, I’m not entirely sure how we fix that. That’s just the browser clearing your cookies at some point.

I’ve updated things so that box is now checked by default to try and mitigate this issue. Honestly there’s not a ton we can do if your browser logs you out, though I believe we have solved most of the issues where people were getting logged out even while checking that box.

Right now, if you log in and don’t manually uncheck the stay logged in box, you should stay logged in for a year.

Joeys Bat Flipmember
5 years ago
Reply to  phoenix2042

Have you considered getting an ad-free membership? Because it sounds like it’s exactly what you need, and you’re currently willing to suffer through annoying ads to save the $50. If you pay that money, the annoyance goes away.

5 years ago
Reply to  Joeys Bat Flip

I have an ad-free membership. However, my phone doesn’t always auto log me into my account when I browse to the site using safari. So, I still have to deal with the issue.

5 years ago
Reply to  v2micca


5 years ago
Reply to  Azizal

Same here. I’m ad-free, and still have the problem on my phone (using the Chrome browser normally, but also Safari).

5 years ago
Reply to  edgecrusher

I had these same issues for the longest time. For me at least, they’ve appeared to fix them. Log back in. Make sure you check the keep me logged in box. I haven’t had any mobile (iOS) issues in a month or maybe more. Again, this is just my experience.

Ryan DCmember
5 years ago
Reply to  phoenix2042

FWIW pop-up ads rarely get through on Chrome

5 years ago
Reply to  phoenix2042

A switch to Chrom on the phone has helped me tremendously.

5 years ago
Reply to  PDR297

Considering that Chrome is the default browser on an Android phone, that seems rather unlikely.

I’m not sure how far Apple have got with their noise-suppressant promise on Safari (the best bit of which is an attempt to kill “auto-play” ads), but I’m willing to try the thing again.

5 years ago
Reply to  phoenix2042

Yes please. This site is unreadable on an iphone.

5 years ago
Reply to  phoenix2042

You can do what I did, which is pay them $50 a year (and why not, given that this the best baseball site that exists?) and the ads are gone.