Why Wasn’t Billy Hamilton a Base-Stealing Dynamo?

Shortly before people were making too much of the Mets signing Michael Cuddyer, people were making just enough of the Royals very nearly winning the actual World Series. It was an enjoyable race for a championship, and a part of the Royals’ game that got an incredible amount of attention was their habit of stealing bases. Against the A’s in the wild-card playoff, the Royals stole seven bags. Against the Angels in the ALDS, they stole another five. Then, against the Orioles, they stole just one. And against the Giants, they stole just one. The Royals’ base-stealing game was more or less shut down. In large part, presumably, because the opponents became prepared.

Along those lines, Billy Hamilton. Hamilton was supposed to be something different, something unique. Hamilton was going to make it with his legs, and Hamilton was going to challenge long-held records. It was a significant news item when Hamilton stole his first big-league bag. It was a significant news item when Hamilton was first thrown out. Coming into 2014, people wondered how extreme Hamilton would be. In the end, he stole a lot of bags. But he was also caught a lot of times, and he has a line like any other speedy slap hitter. Hamilton finished 25th in base-stealing runs — at +2.0 — behind guys like Danny Santana, Sam Fuld, and Kolten Wong. Why was Billy Hamilton not able to run like crazy?

To be clear, Hamilton did a lot. He finished tied for second in total steals, and he ranked among the best in non-steal baserunning runs. So Hamilton’s legs did damage, and perhaps never was it more clear than in the first month’s first half. To jog your memory:


Hamilton turned an infield pop-up into a sacrifice fly. He’s capable of things other people aren’t. That much is undeniable, but that’s also the reason why his base-stealing numbers come as a very mild disappointment. We weren’t expecting Hamilton to get thrown out so much. Not with such a human-looking success total.

The question is, why didn’t Billy Hamilton run like crazy? In reality, he did. He just wasn’t successful like crazy. Pulling data from Baseball-Reference, we can look at steal attempts and steal opportunities. We can then express that as a rate, steal% per opportunity. There were 276 players who had at least 100 steal opportunities. Matt Carpenter led the way, with 397. Here’s the top of the leaderboard, in Steal%:

Billy Hamilton didn’t just finish first — he finished first by a quarter of the guy who finished second. Almost half the time Billy Hamilton had a chance to run, he ran, and this is where we begin to theorize. Hamilton tried to run like crazy. So opponents would’ve expected him to try to run like crazy. As was somewhat demonstrated in the playoffs, when you expect an opponent to run, you can take steps to try to help yourself.

There exists some optimal steal rate. The better the runner, the higher the rate. The closer a runner gets to the rate, the more likely he is to be thrown out, because in theory, he’s selecting worse and worse running opportunities. What were Hamilton’s running opportunities? Clearly, again, he stole plenty, but consider this anecdotal evidence from his manager:

Bryan Price, the Reds manager, sees the difference every time Hamilton gets on. Suddenly advanced scouting reports become nullified.

“We have some stuff that we’ve never seen before,” Price said. “A pitcher who throws from his quicker delivery and calls it a slide step delivery with a runner on base. And it’s now quicker, like 1.25 (seconds) and then Billy gets out there and it’s 1.07. That really affects Billy’s ability to run because it’s an unbelievably competitive time to try to steal a base.”

Hamilton’s running has been hyped for years, and it stands to reason that hype might’ve worked against him. It would’ve been a specific factor to prepare for, probably more than when Hamilton was just a pinch-runner. Teams would’ve anticipated Hamilton’s running, and while it still all just comes down to math, it works to Hamilton’s disadvantage to not be surprising. Billy Butler stole a base against the Angels in the playoffs because, what? Teams would’ve always been on guard against Hamilton. That lowers his odds of success.

And then there’s the matter of Hamilton’s reads. Or, sometimes, his anxiety. Via Hal McCoy:

“This is a whole different level of play, where these guys can do certain things, like vary their times to the plate, be quicker to the plate and he is being challenged at a whole different level,” said Price.

Hamilton realizes it and knows he not only must get better at reading the pitchers but that he will get better.
“What they do up here is hold the ball longer and I get too anxious, sitting over there waiting for a long time. It’s a learning process. It’s something I’m learning as I go along.”

Hamilton, this season, was picked off a league-leading eight times. Now, one of those times, he managed to stay alive, but he was picked off and thrown out a league-leading seven times. Second place was down at four. The last time a runner was picked off and thrown out seven times was 1999, when it happened to the other Eric Young. The last time a runner was picked off and thrown out more than seven times was 1997, when it happened to Brian Hunter. This is evidence of Hamilton still learning. He’s still learning moves, and he’s still learning to control his own eagerness. He’s learning what the league will do to try to keep him where he is.

A couple example pick-offs:


A misread of the first move.


Another misread of the first move. I should re-emphasize that Hamilton’s running this past season was by absolutely no means bad. It just wasn’t as good as it could be. As a starting player, and not a pinch-runner, Hamilton has a lot on his plate, and opponents are more likely to come up with ways to try to keep him under control after he’s reached. Hamilton’s stealing game might be best considered fairly raw.

One thing that happens when you’re not getting great reads is that you get picked off. Another thing that happens is that you’re a little bit slower to get down to second base, as you try to protect against a throw-over. Without a great read, a runner will have a slower or a more indecisive first step, and steals are all about tenths of a second. Here’s a great J.J. Cooper article about Hamilton from 2012. Here’s another great one from Cooper from 2013. Within, you see Hamilton timed at about 3.0 – 3.1 seconds from first move to second base. At that kind of time, Hamilton’s almost impossible to throw out, unless everything’s perfect. This is what informed our 2014 expectations: if Hamilton can be that fast to second, won’t he pretty much always get to second?

The issue is that Hamilton can’t always be that fast to second. Let’s look at a few example caught steals. I selected these basically randomly; I did not look at all of his failures.


From the pitcher’s first move to the ball arriving at second, about 3.4 seconds elapsed.


From the pitcher’s first move to the ball arriving at second, about 3.3 seconds elapsed.


From the pitcher’s first move to the ball arriving at second, about 3.2 seconds elapsed. This turned out to be basically a pitch-out. The throw was also right on the money.


From the pitcher’s first move to the ball arriving at second, about 3.2 seconds elapsed. The immediate call was safe, but the play was overturned. Hamilton was out, barely. It was a bang-bang play — they’re usually bang-bang plays — but this is why the jump is so important. According to J.J. Cooper, a speedy runner gets to second base in a hair over 3.2 seconds. Hamilton, the freak, is supposed to be faster than that. If sometimes he gets his jumps such that he’s speedy, instead of genuinely unparalleled, he’ll be helpful, but he won’t be extraordinary. He’ll be worth a handful of runs, give or take a handful of runs.

One remembers that, in the minors, while Hamilton stole 395 bases, he was also thrown out 84 times. He knows he still has a lot to learn, especially against the best all-around pitchers in the world, and as much as Hamilton would probably love to just be concentrating on his running, he also needs to make sure he’s able to get on base in the first place, so it’s not like anything here is automatic. As a full-season rookie, Hamilton made a lot of things happen with his legs. The promise is there for him to develop into something amazing. It’s simply going to take a better eye for detail. He already has the part you can’t teach. It seems he might just be in need of a little more teaching.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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9 years ago

The Reds should give Rickey Henderson a call.

Rufus T. Firefly
9 years ago
Reply to  Connor

For really!

Hank G.
9 years ago
Reply to  Connor

There are several players with better success rates for their careers than Henderson. Some of them even have a history with the Reds (Eric Davis, Barry Larkin). Tim Raines probably has the best combination of a large number of stolen bases and high success rate, but the real question is could any of these guys actually teach what they know about base stealing.

Hank G.
9 years ago
Reply to  Hank G.

Some of them even have a history with the Reds (Eric Davis, Barry Larkin).

Not to mention Joe Morgan, whose SB% is essentially equal to Henderson’s. Duh.