What Happens When Billy Hamilton is on Third Base?

When I first dreamt this post up, I figured the title would somehow include the phrase, “Billy Hamilton Effect.” That was before I discovered Eno already wrote a post called “Todd Frazier and the Billy Hamilton Effect” back in July. Point is, there are a lot of unusual ways in which Billy Hamilton affects the game, because Billy Hamilton is an unusual player. We know this because stealing 155 bases in a single season is not usual, and neither is this.

I wrote a post about Frazier last week, examining how he was able to steal 20 bases despite possessing what appears to be just mediocre speed. In that post, I noted that three of Frazier’s 20 steals “were essentially catcher’s indifference.” Catchers indifferences are typically insignificant, but these three were noteworthy because they all happened for the same reason. At the time, I didn’t get into the details because I didn’t want to spoil the premise of this piece, but after I saw the first one, I knew I had to write a post about it.

In Little League baseball, when runners were on first and third base and there were less than two outs, you would often see the runner on first base steal second without a throw from the catcher. The thinking here is that kids typically weren’t good enough to a.) execute a throw down to second base to catch the stealing runner and/or b.) execute a throw back to the catcher when the runner on third subsequently took off for home. Not only would this move a runner up one bag for the team at the plate, but it also eliminated the double play. Second and third with less than two outs in obviously better than first and third with less than two outs. You don’t need a table to know this, but there exists such a table for this very scenario in the MLB, so I might as well publish it.

Base Runners Average runs scored/inning
1B 2B 3B 0 outs 1 out 2 outs
1B 3B 1.853 1.211 0.530
2B 3B 2.050 1.447 0.626

Once you reach the high school level, though, you stop seeing this as often. Catchers are more adept at throwing down to second, middle infielders are more adept at throwing back to home, and you start to run the risk of your seemingly-free base at second turning into an inning-ending double play. By the time you reach the majors, this strategy essentially becomes obsolete.

That is, unless Billy Hamilton is standing on third base.

I enlisted the help of spreadsheet super-genius Jeff Zimmerman to find me all the instances from last year when the Reds had a runner on first base with Billy Hamilton on third. That yielded 45 results. But this strategy doesn’t really matter with two outs, because all it would take is a good throw to second base to end the inning, so I nixed those. It also doesn’t make much sense to do this in the first inning, because if the stealing baserunner is slow, you’re risking an out at second and essentially playing for one run. It doesn’t make any sense to play for one run in the first inning, so let’s nix those, too.

I feel like pointing out that I had decided I was going to write about this subject before I did any of the research. Turns out it’s not that big of a big deal — less so than I thought it might be, at least — but it’s still interesting to think about. Any time one player’s extra ordinary ability affects the game in ways we don’t typically see, it’s something worth thinking about.

When first-inning and two-out scenarios are removed from the equation, we’re left with 13 “acceptable” situations where the Reds could have used this strategy. Less than I had expected. Of those 13, the Reds took advantage five times. Again, less than I had expected, but it was nice to at least see that this does appear to be a real strategy the Reds have considered and executed.

It doesn’t look like anything more than what you’d expect, but here’s what it looks like in action:


Catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia pump-fakes to second, hoping to induce Hamilton into breaking for home. He was ready.

Screen Shot 2015-01-17 at 4.35.36 PM

What the Reds broadcasters had to say right before the play:

“You probably can’t throw down with Hamilton at third.”

What the Reds broadcasters had to say right after the play:

“You weigh the chances of throwing out the baserunner at second versus the chances that Hamilton will streak home on you, and it’s better to just put it in your pocket. But it puts another man in scoring position for Frazier.”

And although the effects of this particular scenario turned out not to be as prevalent as I’d hoped, a couple other interesting nuggets popped up during my research. When Hamilton is on third, teams have to adjust their defensive alignments. Take, for example, what the Pirates did:

Screen Shot 2015-01-14 at 6.12.29 PM

The Pirates elected to bring their infield in, hoping to cut off Hamilton at home on a ground ball. This allowed Frazier to steal second base with even less resistance than normal. Even more interesting is what the Brewers had to do (emphasis not mine):

Screen Shot 2015-01-17 at 4.56.15 PM

The Brewers wanted to put an infield shift on left-hander Jay Bruce, where the third baseman would play where a shortstop typically stands. But with Hamilton on third, the third baseman can’t really abandon his post, or else Hamilton would get a big enough lead to where he could just straight up steal home. Hamilton’s presence on third alone kept the Brewers from deploying their optimal defensive alignment. Also, Frazier stole second base without a throw here.

Even when the strategy doesn’t exactly go according to plan, Hamilton’s speed can still make it all work out:


The thing that I thought might be a big deal turned out not to be a very big deal. The Reds only stole second without a throw five times over the course of the season with Hamilton on third, and they only had about 13 sensible opportunities. I’m not quite sure why they didn’t do it more often, but even if they did, it’s something they could only take advantage of maybe 10 times in a year.

But perhaps more important are the other things we saw. Look at the gif above. Hamilton’s presence made the Phillies execute a run-down in a way they aren’t accustomed to. His presence made the Brewers play a defensive alignment they aren’t accustomed to. He made the Pirates align their defense differently. At the very least, Billy Hamilton’s presence on third base alone will take defenses out of their comfort zone, and that’s a part of what makes him Billy Hamilton.

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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9 years ago