There’s no denying it – the Billy Hamilton Era hasn’t begun smoothly. With the spotlight fixed upon him as crucial to Cincinnati’s 2014 chances, the Man of Steal has started the season 0-for-12 with six strikeouts, including an Opening Day debut in which he was awarded a golden sombrero by Adam Wainwright (he did finally reach base yesterday on his final plate appearance of the opening series against the Cardinals courtesy of a Pat Neshek four pitch walk). It’s not just about the raw numbers though, or distinct lack of, but the manner in which Billy the Fast Kid has fared at the plate; the aforementioned Wainwright, Michael Wacha, and Lance Lynn have all pounded the inner half with fastballs with no fear of powerful retribution in order to get ahead in the count early before victimizing the Reds’ new center fielder with breaking balls to put him away. For even the most ardent of optimistic Reds fans (fair warning: occasionally I myself get irrational about Cincinnati), through the first 1.9 percent of the regular season Hamilton’s lack of offensive performance and early exploitation has been a veritable cause for concern.
Perhaps it was the inordinate focus on his potential to win you a single fantasy category by himself, but expectations for Hamilton heading into 2014 were simply waaaay too high (I might have contributed to the hype train): as put by Tyler Grote of Bleacher Report, “Billy Hamilton became Broadway the second Shin-Soo Choo left for Texas. He’s been cast to center stage with about all of a month’s worth of experience working as an extra.” No one should have realistically expected Hamilton to replicate the 143 OPS+ mark that Choo racked up during his single year in a Reds uniform last season, but after his electrifying September call-up (per Fangraphs, in 13 games, he went 13 of 14 in stolen base attempts and scored 9 runs. He also managed to hit .368 in that span with a .105 ISO) and an encouraging Spring Training showing (he hit.327 and only struck out nine times in 55 at-bats, while unveiling an improved bunt tool), the pumping up of Hamilton’s tires by some media outlets would have convinced the impartial observer we were dealing with the next Rickey Henderson.
The Reds themselves are somewhat to blame for this; in December, general manager Walt Jocketty said to the Cincinnati Enquirer‘s John Fay, “He’s the guy. We feel confident he can be a good leadoff hitter.” Joey Votto, on Cincinnati’s 700 WLW radio network, said of his teammate “if [he] learns to walk, he could be an MVP candidate.”
The truth is, as unfortunately noted by David G. Temple on Fangraphs, “at this point, he just doesn’t have great hitting skills.” Pre-2013, a year in which Hamilton posted a .651 OPS at Triple-A Louisville and walked just 38 times in 547 plate appearances, Baseball Prospectus wrote “You can knock the bat out of his hands with good velocity and he doesn’t have the discerning eye to work counts and lay off spin… he’s a virtual zero offensively.” It appears, for all the coaching of Eric Davis and Don Long, and bunting workouts with Delino DeShields, that little has changed since – something the Steamer, Oliver and ZiPS projections all predicted; the three major systems had his 2014 OPS at .643, .593, and .681 respectively. PECOTA too, projects Hamilton to hit .244 with an on-base percentage right around .300. Batting leadoff in the opening home series of the season against the vaunted Cardinals rotation therefore has only served to unfairly expose the worst tool in Hamilton’s game for everyone to see – and thus worry about.
Even after his uneven start, Bryan Price and the Reds are standing behind their decision to anoint Hamilton the starting role in center field. The calls for him to be benched, or even sent back to Louisville, are at this point ridiculous – it’s been three games after all (though it is worth noting Hamilton was not in the starting lineup for this afternoon’s game against the New York Mets). Until he goes full-on Aaron Hicks 2013 – the perfect example of a prospect called to The Show too soon – his defense and base running alone (not to mention the Reds’ lack of replacement center field options) should ensure him a spot in the opening lineup. Bryan Price does however, have for now quite the quandary to address in regards to Hamilton’s spot in the lineup; leading off gives him the best chance to use his famous speed should he get on base (and finally subdue the Joey Votto is selfish narrative/RBIzzzzz argument), but exposes his greatest deficiency in a prominent role. Batting in a more appropriate spot however – ie. vying with Zack Cozart for the eight hole – would likely lose him a lot of opportunities to use the legs that are the stuff of Yadier Molina‘s nightmares.
Certainly Hamilton’s early struggles can for now be forgiven due to his age and inexperience – I can’t stress this enough, it’s been three games, he’s 23, and even the best hitters go through slumps – but if his subpar on-base skills and total lack of power end up costing the team about as much as his legs help them, my love for base running highlights won’t be held hostage should a change be beneficial to my Reds. Of course, I’m hoping he does eventually hit – but I’ve drastically tempered my expectations from where they were a mere week ago.
If all else fails, at least Cincinnati will still have the most terrifying pinch-runner in the game to call up every September.