Sunday Notes: Cincinnati’s New Coaches Don’t Have a Billy Hamilton Conundrum

The Cincinnati Reds did more than hire a new manager over the offseason. They also revamped their coaching staff. Two of the additions will be entrusted with optimizing the offense. Turner Ward, formerly with the Dodgers, is now the hitting coach. Donnie Ecker, who came over from the Angels, will serve as the assistant hitting coach. Neither will be faced with the challenge of helping Billy Hamilton turn a corner. The Reds non-tendered the enigmatic speedster, who subsequently signed with the Royals, back in November.

I recently asked Dick Williams about the decision to cut ties with Hamilton, who slashed .245/.298/.333 in his five seasons as Cincinnati’s centerfielder. Before we get to that, here is the team’s President of Baseball Operations on Ecker:

We’ve had some really interesting sessions the last couple of days, where coaches have gotten up and talked about their areas. Donnie Ecker is a movement specialist. He has a bio-mechanical approach to the swing. We had some great hitters in the room, like Barry Larkin and Eric Davis. Donnie gave a bio-mechanical explanation of some of the things he sees in hitters, using descriptions and examples that all of us could understand.

Would Ecker, along with Ward, have been able to transform Hamilton into the productive hitter he’s thus far failed to become?

“That’s a good question,” responded Williams. “I’m interested in seeing how the players respond to a different set of coaches. The decision on Billy was made before we were all the way through the coaching staff process, so it was really independent of that. It wasn’t about a mechanical fix we could or couldn’t make. It had more to do with the overall approach of the lineup that we were looking for.”

Finances were also a factor. At the time the speedy outfielder was let go, the small-market Reds hadn’t yet acquired (and extended) Sonny Gray, nor had they made the deals that brought on board Alex Wood and Tanner Roark. As Williams put it, “We wanted to have as many resources as we could to attack the area where we were most deficient. We didn’t want to commit to his salary based on the needs on our pitching side.”

As for whom will replace Hamilton in centerfield, Williams listed the candidates as Scott Schebler, Yasiel Puig, Phillip Ervin, and… (drum roll, please) Nick Senzel. Referring to the highly-touted prospect as “our wildcard,” Williams said that Senzel has the athleticism and speed; he simply lacks the experience.

None of the above will be able to replicate Hamilton’s glove work, but that’s something the Reds are willing to accept. Williams put it this way: “Any time Billy’s no longer on your team, you’re going to be trading down in terms of defense to get something else.”

Reds fans undoubtably enjoyed watching Hamilton run down fly balls during his tenure as the team’s centerfielder. What they didn’t enjoy was his struggle to reach base at anything resembling a consistent clip. The decision-makers within the club’s executive offices felt much the same way. After five often-frustrating years, it was time to go in another direction.

We’ll hear from Williams on a multitude of other subjects in the coming days.

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Left on the cutting room floor from my recent interview with Ross Atkins was his response to being asked if the Blue Jays had become too reliant on home runs in recent seasons. The question was a reasonable one. From 2016-2018, Canada’s team hit 660 dingers — third-most in MLB — but they were also station-to-station plodders. Only the Orioles hit fewer triples, and only the A’s and O’s swiped fewer bags.

Based on what Toronto’s GM told me, no philosophical shifts are in the offing. If jackrabbits end up replacing boppers in the Blue Jays lineup, it won’t be by design. It will be because they’re players who can help turn around the fortunes of a team coming off consecutive fourth-place finishes.

“I don’t think it’s a matter of hitting too many, or too few, home runs,” said Atkins. “It’s a matter of your overall total production. There’s nothing wrong with home runs. In our mind, it’s ‘What did it cost to get them?’ There’s a balance. We also have a different team now. It’s not just on the manager and the hitting coach. It’s on acquisitions, as well.”

In other words, what’s needed are more good baseball players. The Vladimir Guerrero, Jr. era is about to begin, and no one player — hello Mike Trout — can put an entire baseball team on his back. It’s up to Atkins and Co. to assemble a formidable supporting cast for the presumptive superstar — regardless of whether they’re adept at leaving the yard.

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RANDOM HITTER-PITCHER MATCHUPS

Buster Chatham went 2 for 4 against Tiny Chaplin.

Junior Spivey went 3 for 5 against Jung Bong.

Muddy Ruel went 3 for 5 against Ole Olsen.

Footsie Blair went 6 for 18 against Socks Seibold.

Greasy Neale went 0 for 19 against Brad Hogg.

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People who follow the Padres farm system know that Buddy Reed grew up excelling on the ice. Others have come to learn that as well. The 23-year-old switch-hitting outfielder garnered a lot of attention last summer with a strong showing that included an appearance in the All-Star Futures Game.

I talked to Reed at the media portion of the mid-summer event, and while we only touched on hockey, I did learn that he shot right-handed. As a matter of fact, he does most everything right-handed. Throw. Write. You name it. Reed is right-hand dominant.

Prospect followers also know that Reed’s mother is responsible for his being a switch-hitter. She had him hitting off a tee from both sides at a young age — moreover, a young enough age that he doesn’t view himself as having “a natural side when it comes to batting.” That doesn’t mean a difference doesn’t exist. Asked to compare one to the other, Reed said, “The idea is to be the same. I have the same mechanics from point A to B, and then to C, but I wouldn’t necessarily say they’re exact.”

And then there are his legs. Reed stole 51 bases last year between high-A Lake Elsinore and Double-A San Antonio, and his ability to cover ground in the outfield is one of his best attributes. A strong-and-agile lower half also helps him at the dish.

“Your body is incorporated into your swing,” explained Reed. “People say, ‘Use your hands.’ Yeah, you’re using your hands, but it starts from the ground up. It starts with your load, and staying on your back side. From there you’re landing and it’s about body positioning balance. Your hands are working. Some people say, ‘Your back elbow goes to your belly button,’ and then your swing is… I mean, there’s a lot of different terminology when it comes to the swing.”

In simple terms, Reed has both the raw tools and the aptitude to one day man an outfield spot in San Diego. He’s currently in camp with the Padres as a non-roster invitee.

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The Milwaukee Brewers made a handful of coaching changes this winter. Andy Haines is now in charge of the hitters, Chris Hook the pitchers, and Steve Karsay is the bullpen coach. The trio replaces Darnell Coles, Derek Johnson, and Lee Tunnell on manager Craig Counsell’s coaching staff.

According to GM David Stearns, he and Counsell worked hand-in-hand throughout the hiring process.

“It was a collaborative effort,” Stearns said at the Winter Meetings. “That’s the way it should be. A manager needs to be comfortable with his coaching staff, and the front office needs to be comfortable with the field staff. I think Craig and I have worked through that well on both occasions that we’ve had to hire some coaches.”

I asked the 34-year-old executive if he and Counsell have basically approached each other and exclaimed, “This is a guy I like; what are your thoughts?”

“It’s more nuanced than that,” answered Stearns. “In any search process, whether it’s for a major league coach, or for a front office employee, you put together a list of highly-qualified candidates, and then you whittle them down based on research and references. From there you do in-person interviews. Hopefully you have a systematic process for evaluating those interviews.”

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NEWS ITEMS

Leonard Koppett, Rob Neyer, and Alan Roth are the 2019 recipients of SABR’s Henry Chadwick Award. Established in 2009, and named after one of the game’s preeminent pioneers, the Chadwick Award honors the game’s great researchers.

Emilee Fragapane, Ben Jedlovec, Scott Radinsky, Joe Rosales, and Julian Volyn have been added to what was already an impressive list of presenters at this year’s
SABR Analytics Conference. The can’t-miss event will be held in Phoenix from March 8-10.

Sam Levitt has been hired as the first ever radio play-by-play voice of the Amarillo Sod Poodles, the new Double-A affiliate of the San Diego Padres. Levitt had been calling games for the Corpus Christi Hooks.

The Anaheim Angels announced their minor league staffs yesterday. The hitting coaches include Brian Betancourth at Triple-A Salt Lake, Matt Spring at Double-A Mobile, and Derek Florko at high-A Inland Empire.

Michael Fransoso won this year’s Australian League batting title with a .430 average. The 27-year-old University of Maine product had 43 hits in 100 at bats for the Canberra Cavalry. Fransoso spent the 2018 season with the Atlantic League’s Somerset Patriots.

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The bonus supplement to Baseball America’s Prospect Handbook consists of bios for the 30 players ranked No. 31 in their respective organizations. In 2013, Boston’s entry was Mookie Betts, who was 20 years old and coming off a season where he slashed .267/.352/.307 with the short-season Lowell Spinners. Betts’s bio included the line, “The question is whether he has a true plus tool because he’s not physical and doesn’t really impact the ball.”

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Former Cardinals and Tigers pitcher Joe Presko passed away on February 5 at age 90. Nicknamed “Baby Joe,” Presko had a fairly nondescript career, going 25-37 with a 4.61 ERA over parts of six seasons.

His big league debut was memorable. On May 3, 1951, Presko relieved St. Louis starter Max Lanier and went four innings for the win. He retired 12 of the 13 Phillies batters he faced, with an Eddie Pellagrini home run responsible for the only blemish on his stat line.

Lanier’s career was much more notable. From 1940 through mid-May of the 1946 season, the lefty went 72-43 with a sparkling 140 adjusted ERA. Shockingly, he then broke his contract with the Cardinals and jumped to the fledgling Mexican League, which was offering markedly-higher salaries than MLB.

Lanier was subsequently suspended from organized baseball by Commissioner Happy Chandler for five years. As noted in his SABR BioProject entry, “He challenged baseball’s reserve clause in federal court (but) dropped his lawsuit when he was reinstated in 1949.”

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LINKS YOU’LL LIKE

For a player, spring training can be a new beginning — or an uncertain nightmare. Lars Anderson, who has lived the experience, explained why at The Athletic.

Also at The Athletic, Eno Sarris filled us in on how the Giants’ new coordinator of pitching analysis is “a baseball guy that knows data, not the other way around.”

Writing for Forbes, Tony Blengino presented us with Jason Kipnis And The Dark Side Of An Increased Launch Angle.

Over at Yahoo Sports, Chris Cwik wrote about how White Sox righty Carson Fulmer became a Driveline devotee during the offseason, and intends to remain one until his career is over.

The New York Post’s Ken Davidoff penned a remembrance to “T-Bone,” a baseball lifer. Tom Giordano, who died earlier this week at age 93, played, managed, and scouted.

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RANDOM FACTS AND STATS

CC Sabathia has pitched 3,470 innings and has 246 wins, a 117 adjusted ERA, and 67.8 WAR. Tommy John pitched 4,710 innings and had 288 wins, a 111 adjusted ERA, and 79.4 WAR.

Omar Vizquel went his entire career without swinging at a 3-0 pitch. He had 667 opportunities to do so — the most of any player (since 1998) who faced that count without ever taking the bat off his shoulder. David Eckstein and Kevin Youkilis have the second-highest total, with 292 each. (Per Aidan-Jackson Evans.)

Stuffy Stewart, a utility infielder for four teams from 1916-1929, had 63 career hits. Used often as a pinch runner, he scored 74 runs.

Footer Johnson’s big league career consisted of eight games with the Chicago Cubs in 1958. He went 0 for 5 as a pinch hitter and was a pinch runner three times.

From 1970-1973, Ron Hunt had 115 RBIs, 118 strikeouts, and 126 HBPs.

Rob Deer had 230 home runs and 600 RBIs. Al Oliver 219 home runs and 1,326 RBIs.

Piano Legs Hickman was runner up in the American League home run race in 1902, 1903, and again in 1906. The deadball-era slugger hit 11, 12, and 9 round trippers in those seasons.

From 1964-1968, Red Sox-and-Tigers-right-hander Earl Wilson had 92 hits. Twenty-nine of them were home runs.

From 1927-1931, Cardinals outfielder Chick Hafey slashed .338/.398/.611 with 116 home runs and a 150 adjusted OPS. Embroiled in a contract dispute, the 29-year-old defending batting champion was traded the Cincinnati Reds In April 1932.

Joe Nuxhall was just 15 years old when he made his MLB debut with the Reds in 1944. The catcher he threw to that day was Joe Just.

We hoped you liked reading Sunday Notes: Cincinnati’s New Coaches Don’t Have a Billy Hamilton Conundrum by David Laurila!

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David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.

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Dominikk85
Member
Dominikk85

I would make billy stop switch hitting. Don’t nuture two crappy swings.

But BH is hard to fix because it isn’t a launch angle issue (“easy” to fix) but BOTH an EV and a contact issue. Low EV and swing and miss isn’t a good combination.

LHPSU
Member
LHPSU

He’s never done much with the bat, even in the minors before switch hitting. More likely it’s just what it is.

tz
Member

Well, except for his 2012 season where he slashed .311/.410/.420 between high-A and AA ball. It was the only time in his career where he topped a 10% walk rate (almost at 15%), and his offensive splits were about the same from both sides of the plate. And this version of Billy Hamilton that could reach base over 40% of the time stole 155 bases in 132 games.

Unfortunately, pitchers at AAA and above have been able to overpower him with stuff in the strike zone, making him into the .300 OBP version he is today. At this point, it’s likely that’s just who he is as a major-leaguer, from either side of the plate.

Dominikk85
Member
Dominikk85

Hamilton does have good plate discipline. His career chase rate is lower than the chase rate of Miguel Cabrera and kris Bryant. But pitchers have learned that you can just throw him fastballs down the pipe and he can’t do much with it so the walks went down (still 7% is pretty decent for a guy who can’t hit)

Dave T
Member
Member
Dave T

He also had a nearly .400 BABIP in that 2012 season in A/AA compared to a career .306 BABIP in the majors. Some of that difference may have been better quality of contact, but his Fangraphs page shows that his line drive percentage in 2012 was *lower* than his MLB career percentage and his pop-up percentage in 2012 was *higher* than his MLB career percentage.

I’m left thinking that Hamilton’s so fast that he probably disproportionately benefited from the poorer quality of infield defense at the A/AA level. (Fangraphs’ pages unfortunately don’t have infield hit percentages for the minors).