I can’t say I was expecting much of an exciting game when I tuned into yesterdays game in Washington. The Nationals were sending Stephen Strasburg to the mound to face a Reds lineup minus both Jay Bruce and Joey Votto, batting Skip Schumaker in the two hole, and playing Brayan Pena at first base. Cincinnati meanwhile, had their hopes pinned to the perennially underrated Mike Leake, who would be looking to shut down a Washington lineup without Bryce Harper, Adam LaRoche, and Ryan Zimmerman. A high run total was not to be expected then, though a nice pitcher’s duel was in play.
Alas! Though they both pitched plenty well enough, combining for 13.2 innings and just 3 runs allowed, neither Strasburg nor Leake really had their best stuff working – Strasburg for example, only had 4 strikeouts against a team which employs both Billy Hamilton and Zack Cozart.
Still, on a night during which there were only four other games being played (bad job by the folks at MLB, especially considering there wasn’t a single day game), the game turned out more than alright as a spectacle for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it went 15 innings (though unfortunately, no position player pitched – shout out to Drew Butera!). Secondly, minus one embarrassing drop by Jayson Werth, some of the defensive plays made were spectacular.
From the very first pitch of the evening, the standard was set; echoing Tyler Moore‘s play to rob Eric Young Jr. the night before, Wilson Ramos laid out, catcher’s equipment and all, to snag a pop-up bunt off the bat of Billy Hamilton.
Cincinnati would be up by two by the time the next highlight defensive stop occurred, a diving stop made by who else but Brandon Phillips. Now I’ve got on Phillips’ attitude before as an angry Reds fan, and his production at the dish has certainly dropped off the last couple of years despite his huge 2013 RBI(zzzzzz) total indicating otherwise, but boy can he still play the deuce effectively. He makes robbing Danny Espinosa‘s hard-hit groundball look easy. Of course (after the Nats had got on the board), in the very next frame – the top of the eighth – Espinosa would get some measure of revenge, making arguably an even better play at the keystone to deny Todd Frazier, and keep Washington’s deficit at one.
Neither highlight however, would ultimately be the crowning fielding moment of the night. Because first, in the bottom of the twelfth with runners on first and third and two outs, Phillips would top his earlier effort with an incredible pounce on a Wilson Ramos liner behind the bag at second, preserving the game for the Reds.
Poor Anthony Rendon must have thought he’d won it with a runner on third ready to stroll home. Hamilton however, quickly put an end to those dreams, ending the inning in the process.
Frazier would finally provide the breakthrough in the fifteenth, blasting a two-run homer over the right field wall off Ross Detwiler, and after Washington only managed one in response in the bottom of the inning, after nearly five hours (4.58 if you’re picky), the game was concluded – the Reds eking it out 4-3.
Having gone to the gym and back in the meanwhile, by then I didn’t care much about the result. I’d gone into the game not expecting much after all, just hoping that the Reds could pull it out, inch back closer to .500, and make up some ground in the NL Central. What I got then, was a pleasant surprise. With the big-names out, and the pitching merely above-average, I’d been treated to a thriller.
All because of some defense.
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).
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.
Yesterday I plumbed the depths of the NL Central, diving into the stocked farm system of the Chicago Cubs in order to find someone worth writing home about. Javier Baez was that someone, and then some. Today, there are extenuating circumstances…
I was born in Cincinnati. I lived there until I was two. I can’t remember a jot of it, though I’ve been told I loved the zoo. Apparently I’ve also been to a Reds game. That explains it.
If I weren’t a horrific homer regarding anything Reds related, today would be Cincinnati’s turn in my 2014 MLB Season Preview Series. However, seeing as I struggle so mightily to come anywhere close to objectivity when it concerns my Redlegs, I’m opting to pass over them in the name of professionalism. Fine… I’m copping out of making a fool out of myself by predicting them to win the NL Central by 20 games while the Cardinals flounder to a 50-win season. Instead, here’s a (just beautiful) video of Cincinnati’s 2014 center fielder, Billy Hamilton, stealing the first base of his career. That it came against St. Louis makes it that much sweeter.
I’m going to enjoy his everyday stealing of everything not nailed down this season.
As a quick, and more serious, aside, I’ll be very interested to see how new Reds manager Bryan Price constructs his lineup in comparison to the dubious strategies of former skipper Dusty Baker. I posed this question in a more desperate fashion to Ben Lindbergh of Baseball Prospectus during his chat last week, and received the following response;
We’re World Series bound!