Is Red-Hot Speedster Billy Hamilton Primed to Become 2014 Game-Changer?

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Is Red-Hot Speedster Billy Hamilton Primed to Become 2014 Game-Changer?
USA Today

The worst part about spring training stats is that we all know they mean bupkis. Always have. Likely always will. Darn.

The other worst part about spring training stats, however, is that you can't help but look at them anyway and wonder, "Hey, what if..."

Which brings us to Cincinnati Reds center fielder/living definition of the word "speed" Billy Hamilton. He's putting up some impressive hitting statistics in the exhibition season. In doing so, he's playing against type. And because he's playing against type, well, here we are to wonder together.

"Hey, what if..."

If you haven't seen them yet, here are the numbers Hamilton has put up through nine spring games, courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com:

Billy Hamilton's Spring
PA H XBH SB BB K AVG OBP ISO
27 7 2 6 5 2 .318 .444 .091

Baseball-Reference.com

The catch here—as in, the catch after the one about these being spring numbersis that Hamilton hasn't compiled his production against elite competition. Baseball-Reference.com has his opponent quality rated at an 8.7. That's not entirely damning, but it is somewhere below MLB-quality (10).

All the same, there's one number in particular that gets the drool glands going, and that's Hamilton's .444 OBP. The glaring question mark with Hamilton is whether he has the hitting talent to get on base at a decent rate, yet here he is in spring training getting on base at more than a decent rate.

This carrying over into the regular season, of course, is every National League team's worst nightmare.

That has to do with Hamilton's calling card. He may be the fastest runner in baseball history, and he certainly looked the part in his major league cameo last year with 13 steals in 13 games. In all, he has 346 stolen bases in his last 403 professional games.

Hamilton's speed is a game-changer. No doubt about that. But he won't be true game-changing player unless he gets on base consistently so he can take proper advantage of that speed. He struggled to do that at Triple-A in 2013, posting just a .308 OBP. That he's now teasing an elite on-base ability is just what the doctor ordered for the Reds.

Now, Hamilton's not going to maintain a .444 OBP in the regular season. That would be nice, but...Well, nah. If Hamilton's going to use his spring numbers as an, ahem, springboard to surpass expectations in 2014, he's going to do it with a more down-to-earth OBP.

So let's back away from that .444 figure and talk about what's fair instead. We can start by defining what the "expectations" for Hamilton are, exactly, and we can do that with Steamer and ZiPS projections from FanGraphs:

Billy Hamilton's 2014 Projections
Projection PA SB BB% K% BABIP AVG OBP ISO WAR
Steamer 548 67 7.1 19.5 .300 .246 .301 .088 0.8
ZiPS 605 68 7.4 20.8 .332 .264 .319 .097 2.5

FanGraphs

The Steamer projections are basically the worst-case scenario for Hamilton. It's nice that they have him racking up 67 steals, but the projections also go to show that those won't mean much if he doesn't also get on base at a solid clip. There are other factors at work, but that ugly OBP is definitely the big one in Hamilton's projection for a 0.8 WAR.

The ZiPS projections for Hamilton, on other hand, are much more like the ideal scenario. They also have Hamilton hitting for a little extra power, not to mention playing slightly better defense, but that gap between ZiPS' projection for Hamilton's OBP and Steamer's projection for his OBP is where it's at.

Over or under a .319 OBP for Billy Hamilton in 2014?

Submit Vote vote to see results

It's not hard to narrow down the root of that difference: BABIP. Whereas both Steamer and ZiPS are close on Hamilton's walk rate, ZiPS sees him having an easier time boosting his on-base with good fortune on batted balls.

That's really what taking ZiPS' word for it on Hamilton comes down to: whether or not you believe he's able to post an easily above-average BABIP.

And, oh, he just might be.

Hamilton's speed alone could do the trick. A la Willie Mays Hayes, anything he doesn't hit in the air has the potential to be a hit. He's just as fast to first base as he is to second and third base, you know.

Maybe even faster, in fact. Jon Heyman of CBSSports.com has a report up Wednesday that claims Hamilton was timed at 3.3 seconds running from home to first recently. Roughly four seconds from home to first is considered elite. So yeah.

Conveniently, this brings us to something about Hamilton's showing in spring training that's legitimately exciting: He's been bunting.

Courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB.com.

Getting better at bunting is one of the goals the Reds had for Hamilton, and Mark Sheldon of MLB.com noted that it's one Hamilton took to heart. He showed up a month early to spring training to put some work in with former MLB speedster Delino DeShields, and he is encouraged with the results.

"I'm seeing good results," Hamilton said. "The whole work I've put into it, the time I've put into it to help my game out -- the main thing this spring was to use it a lot more. I've had a few mistakes with it the first few times of trying it, but I feel like I'm getting better each day."

Watch the video embedded above, and you'll see Hamilton drop a bunt past Dodgers lefty Hyun-Jin Ryu in a recent exhibition game. By the time Adrian Gonzalez got to the ball, it was too late. Earlier this week, Heyman noted that Hamilton did the same thing to Yu Darvish and the Rangers.

It's not hard to imagine bunt hits being a part of Hamilton's game in 2014, and that's encouraging. Though the data has only been tracked since 2002, FanGraphs returns four players who have logged as many as 30 bunt hits in a season. None of them posted a BABIP under .320.

If Hamilton can go at least where those four players went, that alone could be his ticket to a safely above-average BABIP and, by extension, a solid OBP. A good bunt habit might also even be able to help his power, as he could develop a habit of slapping balls past drawn-in infielders and getting to second base before the outfielders can get the ball there.

Courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB.com.

But while we're on the topic of encouraging things about Hamilton's spring, there's more there than just his new-found bunting skill. His patience also stands out.

Indeed, it looks good that Hamilton only has a .318 average to go with his .444 OBP. The distance between the two figures can be chalked up to the walks he's drawn.

“He's finishing at-bats. He's not letting at-bats get away from him. He's getting deep into counts,” Reds right fielder Jay Bruce told Heyman. “He just needs to be himself. He's not going to be [Shin-Soo Choo]. He needs to be the best version of himself.”

Maybe Hamilton being himself does and will involve a strong walk habit. After all, him drawing walks at a high rate isn't totally unprecedented.

Hamilton walked in 12.8 percent of his plate appearances at High-A in 2011 and in 16.9 percent of his plate appearances at Double-A in 2012. He had only a 6.9 BB% at Triple-A last year, but now you wonder if that was because he was trying too hard to prove he could hit.

Whatever the case, you do wonder if the BB%'s Steamer and ZiPS are projecting for Hamilton might be too modest. Instead of a 7.1-7.4 BB% kind of guy, maybe he's more like a 10.0 BB% kind of guy.

The Reds would gladly take the ZiPS projections for Hamilton. A 2.5-WAR player isn't a superstar, but that is a solid everyday player. That's preferable to what the Steamer projections cast Hamilton as: basically a guy cut out to be a pinch-runner.

But if Hamilton carries over the bunting skills and strong eye that he's had in spring training, what ZiPS has down for him could be looking too conservative before long. Rather than a .319 OBP, something more like a .330 or .340 OBP would be in the cards.

Not so great for any other player, to be sure. But then again, Hamilton's the only player in baseball who has the speed to turn an on-base habit like that into upward of 70 stolen bases, a ton of runs scored, some extra WAR and a bunch of extra awesome in general.

This is not a promise. No optimistic thought based on the goings-on in spring training ever should be. 

Consider it something to think about instead. By being a star player in spring training, Hamilton has teased how the line between him being a solid player and him being a star player isn't all that thick, and that he might indeed be ready to cross it as soon as 2014.

 

If you want to talk baseball, hit me up on Twitter.

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