Billy Hamilton’s Problems Aren’t Limited to Fly Balls

Billy Hamilton did last year what we all were afraid he’d do: not hit. Somehow, despite a .274 on-base percentage, Hamilton managed to steal 57 bases, which is exactly why his shortcomings at the plate can be so frustrating — think of what he could be if he just hit a little. Despite missing some time to a shoulder injury and being one of the 10 or so worst hitters in baseball, Hamilton managed to be worth two Wins Above Replacement, so it’s not like he wasn’t still a productive player for the Reds, what with his elite speed and center field defense. It’s just, a guy can’t run a .226/.274/.289 slash line forever. That will eventually wear thin with any team, regardless of the player’s contributions outside the batter’s box.

So of course, Hamilton wants to get better at the plate — he needs to get better at the plate — and with Hamilton, it seems like it starts with the approach. These last two years, Hamilton’s put the ball in the air more often than Nelson Cruz. He’s put the ball in the air more often than Josh Donaldson, Albert Pujols, Matt Kemp, Evan Gattis and plenty more sluggers whose fly-ball rates, ideally, should dwarf Hamilton’s. Yet, his swing plane seemingly disagrees with his speed and strength (or lack thereof), and Hamilton has mastered the unbecoming art of the harmless fly out.

Jeff Sullivan wrote last year about this phenomenon, and concluded, understandably, that Hamilton needs to do a better job of putting the ball on the ground, and maximizing his strengths. Now, Hamilton has seemingly come around to that idea, and here’s an excerpt from a recent C. Trent Rosecrans article in the Cincinnati Enquirer to support that idea:

Hamilton said he and [third base coach] Hatcher not only worked on the physical approach — his hands, bunting and such — but also the mental side. Hatcher showed him just how many times he hit the ball where, how many times he popped up and to where and why he was and wasn’t being successful.

“We really sat down and went over all that stuff,” Hamilton said. “I have a plan and I just have to put it together.”

And a remarkably candid quote, from later on:

“I’m going to bunt way more than I did last year.”

Hamilton desperately wants to be Cincinnati’s leadoff hitter, and understands that he’ll have to raise the OBP in order to remain at the top of the lineup. To raise the OBP, he’ll have to change his game, and the way to achieve that goal seems to be clear: more balls on the ground.

Except, here’s a quote from a Mark Sheldon piece during Spring Training last year:

Price would also like to see Hamilton take advantage of his speed by hitting more line drives and balls on the ground instead of lifting them into the air. That would include more bunting.

It’s not the first time we’ve heard this. Last year, Hamilton knew he needed to change, and nothing changed. The ground-ball rate barely nudged up a percentage point. The bunt rate actually dropped. Hamilton was cognizant of these necessary adjustments before the season began, but for whatever reason, they failed to materialize when the games mattered.

For what it’s worth, Hamilton’s already offered a few clues. Here are the first three pitches of his second at-bat of Spring Training:

Hamilton wasn’t able to actually get a bunt down, but that’s alright; he didn’t get a pitch he liked, and becoming a better bunter has as much to do with pitch selection as it does technique. Through two at-bats, Hamilton is sticking to his word.

While the bunts are a big part of this, and they’ll be an interesting storyline to watch this year, I want to get back to the whole ground ball vs. fly ball issue. The prevalent line of thinking is that Hamilton should hit more balls on the ground, because he thrives when balls are hit on the ground. That’s his strength. Look at how fast he is! For Hamilton, ground balls are where it’s at. Except:

Ground ball production

  • League average: .236 BABIP, 29 wRC+
  • Hamilton 2015: .233 BABIP, 24 wRC+

The problem is that Hamilton wasn’t any good when he put the ball on the ground, either. I wasn’t sure what to make of this. Still don’t, really. I mean, it’s Billy Hamilton! If he’s not the fastest guy in baseball, he’s going to a photo finish with the next guy. How could he not have a higher-than-average BABIP on grounders? Immediately, the mind goes to the same two places it always goes to when attempting to answer a BABIP-related question: batted-ball authority or luck.

Let’s begin with the former. Hamilton doesn’t strike the ball particularly hard. We know this. His batted-ball authority was no different last year than 2014, according to the numbers we have from Baseball Info Solutions, and over the last two years, Hamilton has one of the three worst hard-hit rates in the game. He simply doesn’t make good contact. But, wait. For Hamilton, and for ground balls, wouldn’t that actually be a good thing? Isn’t a weak grounder kind of like a bunt, and aren’t bunts what we want Hamilton to do? The answer is yeah, kinda, and Hamilton does have one of baseball’s best infield hit rates, and maybe the weak ground-ball contact actually does pay off for him sometimes.

But here’s where I think it hurts him. Infield hits are nice and all, but you’ve got to be able to get the ball through the infield, too, and here’s all of Hamilton’s grounders from last year:

HamiltonGBs

By my count, that’s 16 grounders all season that made it out of the infield. Part of that could be random — maybe Hamilton had tough luck hitting balls right at fielders. To some extent, that’s probably true. You’re also not going to get a ground ball past a major league infield unless you hit it with some authority.

Hamilton’s best comp is probably Dee Gordon; let’s look at his chart:

Screen Shot 2016-03-04 at 10.38.03 AM

Gordon played more than Hamilton, so we should expect his spray chart to be more abundant, but by my count, I see 50 of Gordon’s 297 ground balls having gotten through the infield, for a rate of 17%, while Hamilton’s rate is just 11%.

Again: I’m not ruling out that this is just noise, and that Hamilton had tough luck, or maybe Gordon was fortunate. I’ve never looked at something like this before, and I’ve never seen it from anyone else, so I’m not sure what to expect. But it’s a counterpoint to the standard “BABIP luck” argument that’s worth consideration.

Does Billy Hamilton need to hit fewer balls in the air? Yes, because nothing good is going to come of those. Fewer balls in the air means more need to be on the ground, and if Hamilton can develop his bunt game, it’s easy to see that being a major weapon. It could only help, but the bigger problem might just be that I’m not entirely convinced that a Billy Hamilton with a more ideal ground-ball rate is a good hitter, either. Not with last year’s ground balls, at least. Doesn’t mean he can’t be a valuable player, overall. But the solution at the plate might not be as simple as it appears.





August used to cover the Indians for MLB and ohio.com, but now he's here and thinks writing these in the third person is weird. So you can reach me on Twitter @AugustFG_ or e-mail at august.fagerstrom@fangraphs.com.

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tz
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The bottom line is Hamilton pulled too many grounders batting lefty. I don’t care how fast you are, it’s very hard to outrun a slow grounder to the second or first baseman.