Billy Hamilton: 2014 Leadoff Hitter?

The signing of Shin-Soo Choo gives the Rangers a player with strong on-base skills, solid power, and decent corner-outfield defense. The signing also left a gaping hole in the outfield for the Reds. Choo was one of three Reds starters that got on base at an above-average clip. He was easily the first- or second-best offensive player for the Reds in 2013. While he was miscast in center field, Choo brought a great deal of value to a team that needed his particular offensive skill set.

Walt Jocketty has stated that Billy Hamilton is the new center fielder and will likely bat leadoff for the 2014 Reds. Hamilton starting in center field should come as no surprise as the Reds do not have many other options. The wisdom of Hamilton batting leadoff is at least up for debate. You can easily go look at his projections for 2014 and draw your own conclusions, but I would like to at least provide some context.

Every baseball fan knows about Hamilton’s speed. He is ferociously fast. He stole 155 bases in the minors in 2012 and successfully stole 13 bases in 14 attempts in limited major league action in 2013. Speed is nice , but it is certainly not close to the most important skill for a player in the leadoff spot. Reds fans may know this best of all from watching Corey Patterson, Willy Taveras, and Drew Stubbs flounder at the plate. Those players were wickedly fast, but as the saying goes, you can’t steal first base. None of them had the on-base skills to bat leadoff, but they found themselves there anyway because of their speed. To avoid this list of failed Reds leadoff hitters, Billy Hamilton will need to get on base enough to justify being at the top of the order. That is the obvious question: can Hamilton get on base to use that blinding speed of his to turn singles into doubles and doubles into triples? There are signs that he can but others that he shouldn’t in 2014.

The 2012 season launched Hamilton into top-20 prospect territory. He obviously broke the stolen-base record, but he also showed some ability with the bat. In a 132 games between high A and AA, Hamilton hit .311/.410/.420. He had 14 triples. His walk rate rose dramatically from the year before. Hamilton looked like a perfect leadoff hitter through two levels.

Then 2013 and AAA came. Hamilton slashed .256/.308/.343. His walk percentage dropped from 16.9% in 50 games in AA (small sample size noted) to 6.9% in 123 games in AAA. it was arguably his worst season as a professional. He looked completely overmatched at times and questions about his ability to get on base resurfaced.

So which is the real Billy Hamilton, and what does it mean for 2014? Hamilton’s ceiling is likely between his 2012 and 2013 minor league performance. In five seasons as a minor leaguer, Hamilton slashed .280/.350/.378. Coupled with his speed and potential excellent defense in center field, that slash line could make him an All-Star-caliber player. The hope is that 2013 was a product of learning a new position and a significant drop in BABIP from over .370 to .310.

Still, Hamilton was very inconsistent at the plate in 2013 and didn’t prove he could hit AAA pitching for an extended period of time. The major leagues are an obvious step up in competition, and it would be surprising to see him match his .280/.350/.378 minor league career slash line in 2014. Steamer projects him to have a .305 OBP, and after last year, it is easy to see why.

While it is very possible Hamilton could surpass gloomy projections, the Reds probably shouldn’t risk it in 2014, at least at first. It makes much more sense to see how Hamilton adjusts to major-league pitching in a less important part of the lineup (7th for instance). He would get fewer at bats and would not be so heavily scrutinized if he struggled adjusting to the level. If he performs well, he can always move up in the lineup, but the Reds likely have better leadoff options than Hamilton to begin the year.

If Hamilton plays excellent defense in center field and has a good year on the bases, he will provide solid value for the Reds. To fill Choo’s shoes, he will have to hit closer to his career minor league mark as opposed to his 2013 numbers. In 2014, that may be difficult.

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10 years ago

One thing that Hamilton has made us Reds fans start to think about is whether or not we do a disservice to speedy guys by considering OBP and speed separately — often leading us to quantify the OBP portion and leave the speed portion as mere color.

The primary value of OBP is, of course, that it puts the batter in a position to score a run (it also creates another PA, which is certainly valuable too). So, when we consider speed, the question becomes, to what degree does the player’s speed increase his likelihood of scoring?

Let’s imagine a player who gets on base 40% of the time but is slow and scores just 30% of the times he reaches base; we’ll call him Hyan Ranigan. In 600 PA, that’s 600 * .400 * .3 = 72 runs scored. Now let’s take a speedy guy who doesn’t reach base a lot, say a .300 OBP, but scores more frequently when he does reach base, say 40%; we’ll call him Hilly Bamilton. In 600 PA, that’s 600 * .300 * .4 = 72 runs scored. Funny how that works.

Now, there is certainly value created by not making an out in that 10% given that it creates a PA for a hitter behind him. However, I think we tend to ignore the question of the likelihood of the runner scoring. And while it’s possible that this dynamic is only relevant at the extremes, we should be doing that math.

Considered differently, Oliver has Hamilton projected to hit a woeful .250/.304/.335. And yet, it has him just 4 runs below average offensively, thanks to the +11 it projects for him on the bases. That +11 is comparable to 2013 Jacoby Ellsbury, who was 52/56 stealing bases. Given what we’ve seen from Hamilton already, we can fairly say he’s got upside well beyond that.

And as the author points out, a lot of his value will come from his glove as well. Oliver has that all adding up to 3.2 WAR, a figure that would easily put him in the conversation for ROY.

As for the batting leadoff, yeah, that’s not the greatest idea, if only because Hamilton’s speed is most valuable when it comes at a time that the hitters at the plate are least likely to provide the bases for him. Personally, I think he’s the perfect candidate to bat 9th. But given the generally conservative nature of the Reds organization and the shallowness of their lineup after Votto & Bruce, I think it’s highly unlikely.

All in all, I would love for the Reds to have landed a reliable star this offseason. But if the consolation prize is an extended shot for Billy Hamilton, color me excited, both for the aesthetic joy and the value that he’ll provide even when his slash line doesn’t shine.

Max B
10 years ago
Reply to  RMR

Great response, I think a lot of people get too caught up in comparing one value, like OBP. Another great thing about Hamilton is the pressure he will always put on the pitcher, an invaluable trait.

Brandon Reppert
10 years ago

The ideal spot would be to bat Hamilton 6th-ish, so that he could use his speed to advance in front of singles hitters and then round the bases. Having speed sit in front of the big boppers in the middle of your lineup is one of the most over-rated ideas in baseball.

Or maybe even bat him 9th.

10 years ago
Reply to  ncarrington

And I don’t see a lead-off hitter in any of those names. Hamilton may lead off almost by default.

10 years ago
Reply to  Jason



Tom H
10 years ago

yes, hitting him 9th is the best idea. Put the SP at 8. But it would be nice to actually have a leadoff hitter who can get on. Sometimes the problem is that even if Hamilton is a poor answer for a #1 hitter, the other answers are equally problematic.

10 years ago

I’m puzzled why no one is suggesting he bat 8th. This would take away the possibility of walking the 8th spot batter to get to the pitcher. And the pitcher doesn’t lose much by taking a pitch to let him run, and the other team would be loath to pitch out and risk walking the pitcher in 9th spot. Finally, weakly hit balls by the pitcher might still move Hamilton up or score him. For similar reasons, when there are one or no outs, it is preferable to bat a poorer batter immediately after him; I admit that’s probably not the case with two outs.

All things being equal, it would be counter-productive to bat a slow runner in front of Hamilton and clog the bases, so Mesoraco, Ludwig or the pitcher should not bat in the spot in front of him.

Leo Walter
10 years ago

Frank,do you really think that pitchers would be ” loathe ” to pitch out on the opposing pitcher ? I really don’t myself. Most would proabably pitch out at least twice,except for Leake possibly.I actually think that the mentions of him hitting in the 9 spot are not as goofy as a lot of people do. However,if I was too conservative for that I might try him in the 7th spot ahead of Cosart,at least till you see what the guy is going to do.

Leo Walter
10 years ago

should have said ” with the exception of when going against Leake ” ! Sorry.

Peter Jensen
10 years ago

The ideal spot would be to bat Hamilton 6th-ish, so that he could use his speed to advance in front of singles hitters and then round the bases.

If you want Hamilton to be on base for batters who hit singles then he should definitely bat first! Singles last year from the 2nd 3d and 4th slots for the Reds, 104, 123, 124. Singles from the 7th, 8th, and 9th slots, 103, 92, 78.

Even if Hamilton only has his project OBP of .305 who does Cincinnati have that is a major upgrade from that? Phillips is .320 OBP lifetime, .310 last year. Frazier .318, .314. Cozart .287, .284. Mesoraco .282, .287. Ludwick .332, .293. Those are the players that currently are at the top of the depth charts for the other positions. And one of those players has to bat 2nd as well! Unless Cincinnati gets innovative and moves Bruce to the 2 slot. Face it Choo and his .400 is gone and there are no good alternatives unless they pick up someone from a trade or promote someone from the minors.

10 years ago
Reply to  Peter Jensen

The Reds have pretty much one minor league lead-off candidate close to being MLB ready. Unfortunately, he’s the topic of this article.