Billy Hamilton Had To Learn To Play Defense, Too

One of the more fascinating stories of last winter was the Cincinnati Reds’ intention to replace the departing center fielder Shin-Soo Choo with the completely unproven Billy Hamilton. While it obviously made sense that Cincinnati had no intention of paying Choo anything like what he got from Texas — a move that looks great right now — they were also subtracting Choo’s .423 OBP from a lineup that had been merely middle-of-the-pack even with him. It’s not entirely a stretch to say Choo’s presence was the biggest part of why Brandon Phillips had suddenly looked so good last year. Phillips declined in nearly every way between 2012 and 2013 then saw his RBI total jump from 77 to 103 in large part because he was hitting behind Choo’s .423 OBP, rather than the out-making ways of Zack Cozart and Drew Stubbs.

That being the case — and because Cincinnati’s main offseason acquisition was the inexplicable decision to give Skip Schumaker two guaranteed years — most of the discussion around Hamilton centered om whether he could get on base enough to take advantage of his fantastic speed. He wasn’t going to match Choo’s OBP, of course, but could he even get on base enough to stay in the big leagues, or to avoid being a one-man out machine out of the leadoff spot? To his credit, after a tough start, he has been more part of the solution than the problem — especially if you can forget he took the worst swing in the history of baseball.

His OBP is at least around .300, which isn’t good, but isn’t the .250 that some of us —  myself included — feared it might be. He’s shown a little bit of power, with six homers. While being caught 21 times on the bases is unacceptable for a player with his speed, that’s the kind of thing that can be eliminated with experience, and he’s still added a considerable amount of value on the bases. He’s a below-average hitter, but that can be tolerated as long as he’s not a complete disaster of a hitter. And he hasn’t been. He’s probably the best candidate in a weak National League Rookie of the Year class.

But while we were spending so much time talking about whether Hamilton would hit, and how many bases he could steal, it was easy to forget he was about to become a major league center fielder. For the first four years of his career, he was a middle infielder. He first played center in 2012 during his stint in the Arizona Fall League. Now that we’ve seen him in center for nearly an entire season… hey, this might just work out.

Remember, first, that for as certain as it would be that Hamilton would be a downgrade on offense from Choo, it was nearly as certain that he’d be an upgrade on defense. That’s without even really knowing what kind of defender Hamilton would be, because Choo was a decent-ish corner outfielder who was completely miscast as a center fielder. The usual caveats about defensive metrics and sample sizes aside, Choo’s 2013 was easily one of the worst outfield defensive years in the majors. It seemed difficult that Hamilton could be worse than that.

Today, Hamilton is just barely outside the Top 10 in our “Defense” metric, which includes a positional adjustment. Among center fielders, he’s tied for eighth in DRS with 8, and tied for seventh in UZR/150. Perhaps you’re not blown away by those positions and wonder why I’m not giving credit to someone like Ender Inciarte, who tops Hamilton in both. Maybe I should. But the point isn’t to say Hamilton is the “best,” because he isn’t. The point is he’s been surprisingly good for a man with so little outfield experience.

It’s not like anyone was setting reasonable expectations about it, either. Back in December, Reds general manager Walt Jocketty seemed pretty sure:

We feel confident he can be a good leadoff hitter. He’ll give us great defense.

Here’s the Cincinnati Enquirer, from March:

According to fangraphs.com, Choo was the worst center fielder in Major League Baseball in terms of Ultimate Zone Rating at -16.1. Milwaukee’s Carlos Gomez was the best at 26.4. A rating of 0.0 is considered average. Hamilton should be close to Gomez.

Is that all? It’s been important that he has, too, because even with him, the overall Reds outfield defense has been middle of the pack. Right field, largely thanks to a hobbled Jay Bruce, has been poor. Left field, with Ryan Ludwick and Schumaker doing their best to drag down some good Chris Heisey work, has been a net negative.

There’s also the always-fun Inside Edge fielding reports, which break down plays into 0% likely to be made, 1% to 10% likely, etc., and it’s there where Hamilton’s speed has allowed him to do things few others can. In fact, 189 outfielders have played at least 100 defensive innings this year, and 179 have managed zero or one of the “nearly-impossible” 1%-10% play. A few have managed two. Only Hamilton and Kevin Kiermaier have three. Among those who have had at least six opportunities, Hamilton’s 27.3% success rate is the best. These are tiny samples, of course. Let’s not pretend they aren’t. Still, let’s enjoy Hamilton doing ridiculous things in the outfield.

Unsurprisingly, these are all going to be Hamilton using his incredible speed to make fantastic diving catches, like this one from May 1:

hamilton_brewers

You won’t be able to tell in the replay, but this catch on May 19 against Anthony Rendon didn’t just look pretty: It came in the 14th inning and very likely prevented the game from ending.

hamilton_nationals

If Choo had started running to get this ball in Pittsburgh during batting practice, I’m not sure he’d have made it in time:

hamilton_pirates

Again, no one’s arguing that single-season defensive metrics are above reproach. Yet you can argue that of the 11 Reds seasons with at least 500 center field innings since 2002, Hamilton’s is easily going to be the best:

Season Name Inn DRS RZR OOZ ARM RngR ErrR UZR/150 Def
2014 Billy Hamilton 1092 8 0.956 65 3.7 10.3 1.2 19.5 17.1
2009 Willy Taveras 839 7 0.926 65 4.3 4.6 0 15 10.4
2012 Drew Stubbs 1107.1 2 0.955 58 6.1 2.4 -1.3 9 9.1
2010 Drew Stubbs 1229.2 -1 0.918 57 1.9 -0.6 -0.7 0.9 2.7
2008 Corey Patterson 798 9 0.935 55 0.2 -0.1 -0.3 -0.2 1.2
2007 Josh Hamilton 555.2 1 0.898 18 1.3 -1.4 -0.3 0.1 0.6
2011 Drew Stubbs 1329 -4 0.945 72 4.4 -8.1 0.3 -3.2 -1.2
2013 Shin-Soo Choo 1333 -17 0.911 72 -0.4 -16.1 -0.4 -17 -14.6
2005 Ken Griffey Jr. 1065.2 -11 0.719 43 -2.2 -17.5 0.7 -23.2 -17.2
2004 Ken Griffey Jr. 656.1 -13 0.735 32 -0.8 -20.7 0.9 -39.7 -19.6
2006 Ken Griffey Jr. 870.1 -14 0.832 31 -0.2 -20.4 -0.7 -30.6 -19.9

This is why, while I hardly want to get into the defense and WAR arguments that have been pervasive lately, each of the three major sites have Hamilton as a 2-to-3-win player. A lot of that is because of his speed, of course. But not all of it. Defense matters, and in his first major league season at a relatively new position, Hamilton’s been a pleasant surprise.

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Mike Petriello used to write here, and now he does not. Find him at @mike_petriello or MLB.com.

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Brian K
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Brian K

The OBP officially under .300 as of last night’s game.