Billy Hamilton has been a Brave for a little over a week — only since Atlanta picked him up off waivers from Kansas City on August 19 after losing Nick Markakis and Ender Inciarte to injury — and he’s already achieved that highest aspiration for any member of the Braves organization: He humiliated the New York Mets, and on their home turf at that. The play came with the score tied 5-5 in the eighth inning of Saturday’s second game of the weekend series, with Ronald Acuña Jr. at the plate, Rafael Ortega at second, and Hamilton at first. Acuña, who at that point was an uncharacteristic 0-for-4 on the night, wasted no time in taking a Brad Brach hanger on the outer third of the plate softly into left. Then, this happened:
J.D. Davis, the Met unfortunate enough to wind up holding the ball on this particular play, spoke to our own Jay Jaffe after the game:
I was going to make a play to third,” he said, in a clubhouse near-silent after a late loss to a division rival, “and then I saw that the runner [Hamilton] was already like three-quarters of the way … so I just held onto the ball, and I looked at first to see where that runner was. But then as I released it to throw it to ‘Rosie’, he was already rounding third and headed home … I should have just thrown it to ‘Rosie’ and got it in. [You feel kind of] helpless, with Hamilton and his speed … it was just perfect timing. It was a good, high-baseball IQ kind of play.
Hamilton’s 14th-inning RBI single the previous night notwithstanding, he’ll need to make a lot more plays like the one Saturday evening in order to earn his keep on the Atlanta roster. That’s because his bat, never outstanding, has been something closer to calamitous this year. In 305 plate appearances with the Royals, Hamilton managed just 58 hits — 44 of them singles, with not one hit leaving the ballpark. His .211/.275/.269 triple-slash line gave him a 44 wRC+ that was by far the worst of his career. Worse still, an astonishing 21% of his fly balls were on the infield, putting him behind only Maikel Franco for the worst mark in the game.
Somewhat oddly, given that performance, the Royals persisted through at least the end of June in letting Hamilton both start and finish games. Of his 73 appearances through July 1, 68 (93%) were starts. After July 1, Kansas City changed course, trying Whit Merrifield and Bubba Starling in center, and allowing just 12 of 20 (60%) of Hamilton’s appearances to come as a starter. It didn’t work — Hamilton’s .167/.196/.250 line after the start of July was even worse than his performance before that date — and by August 16, the Royals had apparently had enough. When Hamilton’s contract was placed on the waiver wire for the slight cost of the pro-rated portion of his $4.25 million salary, and the $1 million buy-out should they want to part ways at the end of the season, the Braves came along to claim it.
It’s too early, of course, to say anything about what kind of adjustments Hamilton might have already made or might yet make with the bat in Atlanta. But his first five appearances for the Braves — all coming in the seventh inning or later — strongly suggest that the way the Braves plan to use him means his bat won’t matter much. In his first appearance, yes, he pinch-hit to lead off the seventh inning and recorded outs in both that appearance and the next; on Sunday, he struck out with nobody on and one out in the eighth. That’s not how I’d hope to get him into games. But in the top of the 10th of Friday’s game against the Mets, Hamilton came in as a pinch runner to replace Alex Jackson at first base with nobody out, advanced to second on a bunt by Charlie Culberson, then stole third base with Acuña at the dish. He can’t be blamed for the strikeouts from Acuña and Ozzie Albies that followed. Four innings later, of course, he drove in the winning run. (Yesterday, he was used as a pinch-runner in the ninth in a contest against the Rockies; he scored what was, at the time, the tying run, though the Rockies would win on a Ryan McMahon walk-off home run in the bottom of the inning.)
That is precisely how to use Billy Hamilton.
The Braves’ playoff roster — and indeed their playoff position — is still an open question, but with Inciarte out with a hamstring injury, Atlanta was always going to need someone to help fill in in center field for the final few series of the regular season. Hamilton doesn’t do that entirely — his bat is just too weak to give consistent playing time to — but he does help give Brian Snitker a little bit more flexibility to move Acuña around the diamond late in games, and retain Ortega for the other outfield positions. Meanwhile, should the Braves fail to hold on to the division and instead end up in the Wild Card slot (we give that outcome a 13% chance of happening), Hamilton is tailor-made for a Wild Card game roster that won’t need quite as many relievers as a five- or seven-game series and may well hinge on a late stolen base.
The dream was always that Hamilton would find a way to produce well enough at the plate to be a truly elite player, capable of getting on base enough times under his own steam to make best use of those incredible legs. That hasn’t transpired and, seven years into his big-league career, I’m guessing it probably won’t. The Braves would do well to give up on that dream and use him instead as a late-inning replacement for other, slower, men. In the early going, it appears that’s precisely what they’re doing. Hamilton has the baserunning acumen to make the best possible use of his physical skills when they’re needed, and right now, they are indeed needed. Bats be damned — Billy Hamilton’s legs still work just fine.
Rian Watt is a contributor to FanGraphs based in Seattle. His work has appeared at Vice, Baseball Prospectus, The Athletic, FiveThirtyEight, and some other places too. By day, he works with communities around the world to end homelessness.