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.
Seeing as I didn’t exactly do my team full justice in my 2014 MLB Season Preview Series – which finally concluded yesterday with a parting glance at Jose Reyes’ and Toronto’s injury woes – I figured today I would spend some further time scrutinizing a player close to my heart. Or at least, he was. Then again, he could yet climb back in. Brandon Phillips is a contentious subject for Cincinnati fans heading into 2014.
Since arriving in the Queen City in 2006, the dynamic play and happy-go-lucky personality of Brandon Phillips had secured the second baseman a long leash with Reds fans. Combining consistently Gold Glove worthy defense with above average offensive production, DatDudeBP was a perennial All-Star with a smile, more loved than even the Cincinnati’s best player, Joey Votto. So when his offensive output dropped off significantly in 2013 (If anyone brings up RBIs as a measure of production – GTFO), we ignored the five year trend of decline and found excuses for him. When his behavior followed suit however, well that ticked off more than just the fans.
Questionably inked to a six-year, $72.5 million contract in 2011 as a 30 year old coming off a career year (.300/.353/.457, 122 wRC+, 5.6 WAR), Phillips last year publicly called out the man responsible for prioritizing his signing, Reds CEO Bob Castellini. Despite his leveraging of Cincinnati management and overlooking of the fact that second basemen don’t tend to age gracefully, Castellini had apparently done Phillips wrong by signing other key teammates to (larger) contracts too. In a July interview with the Cincinnati Magazine, the unhappy player sounded off regarding the man who signs his checks:
“To this day, I’m still hurt. Well, I don’t wanna say hurt. I’ll say scarred. I’m still scarred. It just sucks that it happened. For him to do something like that and tell me they didn’t have any more money, that’s a lie.
All of a sudden, $72.5 million was, according to Phillips, “a slap in my face.” Not long after too, cameras caught Phillips berating beat reporter C. Trent Rosecrans over a tweet which rubbed him the wrong way; simply stating Phillips’ less than stellar career offensive statistics when hitting in the No. 2 hole earning the Cincinnati Enquirer writer the distasteful threat “I’m tired of you talking that negative sh*t on our team, dog. I found out your Twitter name now motherf***er. It’s a wrap.” Top athletes get away with such behavior routinely though; it’s when they stop producing that we have an issue with it. And unfortunately for Phillips in 2013, he fell off the wagon on the field too.
After three consecutive seasons of above-average offense, the increasingly unpopular Phillips hit just .261/.310/.396 (91 wRC+) in 2013, his OPS ranking seventh among second basemen on the Senior Circuit. As Fangraphs’ Eno Sarris noted too, it marked another year of decline:
Here’s the list of statistics in which Phillips showed a five-year worsts in 2013: Batting average, home runs, runs, stolen bases, strikeout rate, swinging strikeout rate, slugging percentage, isolated slugging percentage, batting average on balls in play, batted ball distance on homers and flies, ultimate base running, and four-component speed score.
That’s a heck of a lot of offensive categories. Yes, he had a career high 103 RBIs (…urgh, I’m disgusted to even acknowledge so), as most competent major leaguers could hitting behind the NL’s two best on-base men; hitting savant Joey Votto was on base 101 times when Phillips came to the plate, whereas the recently departed Shin-Soo Choo was there 56 times himself. His 69 weighted runs created , and .257 true average spoke more volume of his struggles however, which in combination with the disappearance of his running game, public missteps, and remaining $50 million owed in salary over the next four seasons, landed Phillips on the trading block this winter.
The Braves were reportedly in on the now-32 year old, but insisted on Dan Uggla’s albatross contract being a part of any return package. The Reds blanched. The Dodgers made overtures before landing Cuban infielder Alexander Guerrero. The Kansas City Royals had interest before signing Omar Infante. Talks progressed beyond mere rumor with the Yankees about a Brett Gardner/Phillips swap, only for New York to nix a potential deal (they have of course since signed Gardner to a 4 year $52 million extension). With trade scenarios cropping up every other it seems then, that barring a sudden rejuvenation, Phillips will be playing elsewhere as soon as Cincinnati can find a taker for his contract.
It will be interesting to see if the former favorite can rebound in 2014 however, whether it be with the Reds or elsewhere. Though his strikeout and contact rates both went in the wrong direction last season, his decline was far greater than expected. At least some of his down year can be pinned on a more than ordinary HBP which occurred in Pittsburgh on June 1st; prior to Tony Watson hitting his left forearm in the eight inning of a game against the rival Pirates – Brandon later acknowledging “He got me good… I thought it was broke for sure.” – Phillips was hitting .291/.340/.476. The keystoner played through the pain however, avoiding the DL and surely in no coincidence, posted his lowest isolated power mark since 2006 (.135). Whether his being nicked up last year can really be viewed as the sole reason for his below-par performance rather than a sign of attrition, will certainly play a part in deciding Phillips’ future with the Reds organization. But as he recently stated in an interview with Jon Danneman of FOX19 – breaking his offseason media silence in the process – “If they feel like they can do better without me than good luck with that”.
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!