The Reds Should Find a Place for Billy Hamilton to Run

Back in March, this contributor presented Billy Hamilton with an idea that he described as the “stupidest thing” he had heard in his life. I didn’t think it was so bad and neither did his spring-training clubhouse neighbor, Scooter Gennett. Today, this author thought he’d revisit the subject.

Hamilton is one of the game’s fastest players — he ranks third in sprint speed this season. He is one of the game’s best outfield defenders and most efficient baserunners. But his bat has eroded his value throughout his career and is doing so again this season. The idea I presented to Hamilton basically was this: to artificially increase his on-base percentage — to get Hamilton and his game-changing speed on the bases more often — Hamilton should be employed as a pinch-runner very early in games and then remain in games to take advantage of his outfield defense and speed.

Hamilton still isn’t hitting. He has the fifth-lowest wRC+ (59) among qualified hitters. It’s become such an issue that Hamilton, a switch-hitter, is thinking about batting left-handed exclusively.

“I’ve thought about it, for sure,” Hamilton said before the game. “It’s already tough to hit in the big leagues, but it’s tough to do both sides. It’s making it real tough, because one time you’re feeling good this way and not feeling good this way. But I just feel like I’d be a way better player if I was able to just focus on one. I feel like I can do both, but even if I just took a break from one side — not completely throw it out the way, but just take a break from one side — [I could] really focus on whichever side it is.”

While Hamilton has been better from the left side, while that gets him a few feet closer to first base on bunt attempts and ground balls, he’s still way below average from both sides of the plate. He has a 62 wRC+ and a .306 on-base mark as a left-handed batter and a 50 wRC+ and a .242 on-base mark as a right-handed hitter.

Dropping switch-hitting is not going to move the needle much on Hamilton’s hitting ability. But if a club were to artificially increase his on-base percentage by placing him on base dozens upon dozens of times over the course of the season as something of a super pinch-runner/defensive replacement, that would add significant offensive value to Hamilton and the team that employs him. Consider this first-to-third action on Sunday against the Cardinals, when Hamilton’s sprint speed reached 31.2 feet per second, according to Statcast:

If only that could happen more often.

From March:

If the Reds were to replace the first non-Votto, non-pitcher to reach base… 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.

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.

Sixteen additional baserunning runs is not insignificant. There’s a hidden win or two there. Hamilton is again scoring 44% of the time he reaches base and he has scored 43% of the time he has reached base for his career. The MLB average this season is 30%, according to Baseball Reference.

The thing is, Hamilton isn’t getting any younger. His legs aren’t getting any younger, any fleeter. The Reds don’t seem interested in experimenting with Hamilton or close to contending. So, perhaps to free Hamilton, the Reds ought to trade Hamilton to a club that is creative and in contention. Many have promoted this idea of trading Hamilton, of course. That’s not a new idea. But where could Hamilton really help?

Hamilton is a quality outfielder defender. What are the contending clubs with the worst outfield defense according to DRS?. The Rockies rank 28th (-18), the Phillies rank 27th (-17), the Giants 26th (-16), the Mariners 23rd (-9), Indians 22nd (-7) and the Dodgers also have a negative number (-2).

The worst baserunning team amongst plausible contenders? The Rockies rank 26th with -6.9 baserunning runs below average. The Mariners are 23rd (-2.7) and the Red Sox are 19th (0.0). Moreover, the Mariners (29%), Brewers (29%), Nationals (29%), Cardinals (29%,) and Giants (28%) all convert baserunners to runs slightly below the MLB average of 30% — and well below Hamilton’s 44% mark.

The Rockies have the largest major-league outfield to patrol in Coors Field. The Mariners lost Robinson Cano to a PED suspension and have shifted Dee Gordon from center to second base. Like Coors, there’s acres of ground to cover in the spacious Safeco outfield. Red Sox Nation knows the value of a role player with speed.

A creative team, particularly an AL team, could better utilize Hamilton’s speed. While the Reds are not seemingly ready to experiment, maybe someone else is. After all, this is the year of “the opener.” Perhaps Hamilton could create a new label, a new role for an early-game pinch-runner who remains in the game as an elite defender and baserunner. Perhaps Byron Buxton would also fit this role. Before Hamilton’s gift, his speed, declines, let’s hope someone finds a way to maximize it. For baseball, it would be a lot of fun.

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

Let me thè first to suggest the Tigers would be perfect to try this.

Thomas Kessler
5 years ago
Reply to  wjylaw

The Cardinals will never *do* this, because Mike Matheny is not a very creative, intellectually-flexible manager. But the Cardinals would be an ideal team for this strategy. Virtually every player in their lineup is interchangeable – their 4th best outfielder (Harrison Bader) is not notably worse than their 3rd best (Dexter Fowler). Their infielders (Gyorko, Wong, Carpenter, Garcia) all play multiple positions and provide similar value.

In the case of the Cardinals it would be “first hitter to reach base besides Yadi or a pitcher gets subbed”, but I think the concept is very strong for a club assembled along Cardinals’ lines – deep bench of interchangeable, league-average players. Plus, you could always pinch hit for Hamilton in a 9th inning, bat-first situation.

I hope *someone* gives this a try!

5 years ago
Reply to  Thomas Kessler

I wouldn’t take Pham out either. Other than that, yes.

5 years ago
Reply to  Thomas Kessler

If you have a particularly good and flexible player like Carpenter, I would think he would be a guy you wouldn’t take out either as he can slide over to wherever the player removed was playing.

This strategy may actually work well for a team like Tampa Bay who is forming a positionless baseball team and they are creative enough to do it