What’s Happened On Billy Hamilton’s Weakest Contacts?

Exit velocity! We love it! Sorry for shouting. But we do! We love to sort the leaderboards, and we love to write articles using the information gleaned from those leaderboards. This is one right here! Beat writers love to tweet the exit velocity when a player they cover dongs a dinger, and even the folks who don’t always love the application of exit velocity in the public sphere agree that its tracking can only mean positive things for the future of our understanding of the game. Exit velocity: it’s for the people. Can you believe just a few years ago we didn’t have this stuff?

We have it now, and for as little as we have grasped about the subject, it’s intuitive that the higher the average exit velocity, the better. Hard-hit balls can go for home runs, and home runs are the best. In first place on this year’s average exit velocity leaderboard is Nelson Cruz. Good hitter. In second place is Giancarlo Stanton. Good hitter. Third place? Mark Trumbo. I’m on a word count, so I’ll stop here. You get the point. Good hitters having good seasons are hitting the ball hard, and that should surprise no one.

There’s a flip side to that leaderboard. Some bad hitters are having bad seasons and hitting the ball not-hard. The guy with the lowest average exit velocity and more than 200 balls in play is Billy Hamilton, who’s averaged just 83.3 miles per hour on his batted balls. Hamilton’s having a fine season, overall — he’s projected to finish the year right around +3.0 WAR thanks again to his elite defense and baserunning — but we’re now nearly 1,500 plate appearances into Hamilton’s career, and it’s beginning to look like the bat might wind up being more Alcides Escobar than the league-average production we all dreamed on when Hamilton broke into the league.

But that’s not going to stop me from writing about Hamilton. Because even though we might like to see what happens were he to hit the ball harder, there’s a lesson to be learned from when he hits it softly. Kudos to you if you already see where this is going.

Inspired by this image from a Rob Arthur piece at FiveThirtyEight, I wanted to look at weak ground balls, the ground balls that come with the most uncertainty. So I set my maximum exit velocity at 80 miles per hour — south of Hamilton’s league-worst average — and ran a query at BaseballSavant in search of BABIP. The league’s BABIP on sub-80 mph grounders is a measly .123. That’s not surprising. Weak ground balls are not good hits!

Except for when Billy Hamilton hits them. I re-ran that same query, and instead of querying the league, I searched by individual, setting a minimum of 25 such balls in play. The leader, as you can guess, is Billy Hamilton. On these weak ground balls, the ones on which the league hits .123, Hamilton’s hitting a robust .297. Hamilton, for the season, is hitting .255.

Here’s Hamilton’s weakest ground ball of the year. It came off the bat at 48 miles per hour.

Horrible swing! Horrible contact! Base hit! The shortstop didn’t even have a play. According to Arthur’s piece, the very weakest balls in play — those below 40 mph, even slower than this one — actually carry a positive expected run value, similar to a batted ball that comes off the bat around 95. These, one imagines, are dribblers in front of the plate that effectively serve as well-placed bunts. This was not that. A batted ball at 47, even for a fast hitter, is a net negative. Billy Hamilton can turn net negatives into positives.

How many others get a hit? It would have been a tough play for the shortstop regardless due to the positioning of the ball, but Hamilton’s speed renders it no contest. The 30 guys on this page leg it out.

Hamilton’s third-weakest grounder of the year, off the bat at 55:

Same swing, similar contact, double the result.

How many others get a hit? All of them. The Padres infield is weird. Has anyone tried unplugging it and plugging it back in? Blowing in the cartridge? Knocking the top of the receiver with an open palm? We haven’t been able to get the damn thing to turn on for almost two years now. Bonus question! How many others get a double? Only the top-half of the 30 from before.

Ninth-weakest grounder, 64:

A Trevor Cahill, traveling Trevor Cahill miles per hour (mph), leaves Westville train station heading toward Eastgrove, 260 miles away. At the same time Billy Hamilton, traveling Billy Hamilton mph, leaves Eastgrove heading toward Westville. When do the two meet? How far from each city do they meet?

How many others get a hit? Trea Turner bats right-handed, so literally just Billy Hamilton.

11th, 65:

Hit ’em where they ain’t, kid.

How many others get a hit? Depends what sort of wacky defensive alignment these hooligans have out there. You never can tell these days.

One more; doesn’t matter:

How many others get a hit? Four. More important question: How many others make you wish they’d have broken for second when the ball skipped away, just to see what would happen? Also four.

The lesson of the story? Billy Hamilton never stops being amazing. The nerdier lesson of the story? Not all exit velocities are created equal. No two hits are the same. No two humans are the same. Billy Hamilton is proof.





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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fredfotch
5 years ago

Nice compilation.

This comment isn’t exactly on point but it brings back memories of Ichiro in his younger days. When I used to watch the Mariners in the early to mid 2000s, I would hope for weakly hit groundballs. It was amazing how many he could beat out (not to mention all the errors he caused and the close plays he created). I think infield singles are among the most exciting plays in baseball.

I don’t watch the Reds play a lot, but I imagine the feeling would be similar watching Billy Hamilton play.