After his thrilling September call-up (during which he hit .368 with a .105 ISO, scored 9 runs, and went 13 of 14 in stolen base attempts), and a promising Spring Training showing (.327 with only 9 strikeouts in 55 at-bats), I can guarantee it wasn’t just me – an ardent Cincinnati Reds fan – who was way too over-excited about the full-time impact of Billy Hamilton in 2014. Everywhere you looked, he was on people’s ‘must-watch’ or ‘most intriguing’ lists, or picking up NL ROY votes on imaginary preseason ballots.
It took four games, approximately 1.9 percent of the regular season, for the panic to set in. After the Man of Steal 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, reaching base just once in that dreadful Opening Series with the St. Louis Cardinals, he was benched by new Cincinnati manager Bryan Price. Previously exuberant Reds fans cursed themselves for falling in love with a 160 pound greyhound of a prospect; fantasy hounds hung their heads when they realized Hamilton’s inability to get on base would mean he couldn’t steal them*. Expectations were more than just tempered – they were dashed completely.
Well, funnily enough, it turns out we may all have overreacted to his ‘failure’ to meet the preseason hype. That is, no, Billy Hamilton is not Rickey Henderson. But he’s also not a bust. Since that fateful benching, The Fast Kid has actually fallen somewhere very nicely in the middle ground, hitting a more than serviceable .280/.310/.378 in combination with stellar center field defense and his customary base path speed. His tenure might have gotten off to a rough start, but now that he’s has started to hit just a little bit, Hamilton is looking more and more like an everyday leadoff man.
Not that he’s stopped doing the sorts of things that we were all so excited about during Spring Training of course; We’ve seen him create runs out of nothing, most famously turning an otherwise routine Jay Bruce pop fly into an RBI against St. Louis (much to my anti-Cardinals glee) earlier this month. He’s robbing hits in the outfield seemingly every other day, Mike Olt and Andrelton Simmons being among his most recent victims. Then there’s the stolen bases (though he does lead the NL in caught stealing currently with 5**). He even hit his first home run of his major league career off of Jeff Samardzija on Tuesday night, much to the pitcher’s surprise:
As you can see, it wasn’t your garden variety wall-scraper, aided by the friendly home confines of great American Ball Park, or even a hooked line drive that squeaked inside the foul pole. Nope, Hamilton’s shot went 397 feet deep into the right field bleachers***, and was the highlight of perhaps his best night in a Reds uniform to date; the 23-year-old produced his third three-hit game of the season, adding two infield singles to his debut jack, scored twice, was on base all five times, stole a base, and robbed Olt. Shrugging off three separate rain delays, he pretty much singlehandedly willed Cincinnati to a 3-2 win, kicking off a home stand by snapping the team’s three-game losing streak.
It was like catnip for Cincinnati fans – Billy Hamilton at his very finest, his dynamic play sparking the Reds’ stale offense (don’t get me started on Brandon Phillips) to victory – and a more than encouraging sign for his future.
While I’m sure it has been a more than interesting first month following The Billy Hamilton Experience as a casual observer from afar, it’s been little less than a rollercoaster ride for those of us invested in his, and thus Cincinnati’s, success. From the preseason peak, to the small sample size valley, at the close of April the ride thankfully looks to be leveling out at a reasonably comfortable level.
Bring on May.
* Thankfully I only fall into the former group – who the heck knows what I might have done had I actually owned Hamilton on any of my roto teams too.
** Billy ‘Freakin Hamilton! Caught stealing! 5 times! Whaaaat?!
*** It was also the first Cincinnati home run in seven games, covering 251 at-bats and 283 plate appearances, and only the second long ball Samardzija had allowed all season (Chase Utley hit the other).